Brian Rush is the manager/buyer at Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop on 6th St. in downtown Austin. www.tearsofjoysauces.com
"Why am I doing this? I must be insane."
This thought crept into the back of my mind more than a few times in the midst of spooning down several hundred amateur salsas. It was one of the best times of my life. Weeks later, my tongue is still recovering from the onslaught. I won't even mention my innards.The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is an annual tradition here in Austin, Texas, going back thirteen sweltering years. It is something that we all look forward to, though we're not really sure why. Every time there is great speculation and analysis why anyone in their right mind would willingly go to an outdoor park in 100 degree F August weather and collectively chomp down a few hundred gallons of salsa and hot sauce. No one has been able to give a reasonable explanation. We just love the heat. That's the best I can do.
attracted large crowds.
This year, I had the great honor of being one of the preliminary judges of the individual contest. I'm just crazy enough to volunteer for such a task. Somebody has to do it.
The process for the contest is fairly simple. It's divided up into three main categories: individual, commercial bottlers, and restaurant. The festival-goers, an estimated 12,000 people, sample and vote on the commercial bottler and restaurant categories, with red, green and special variety for each. Commercial bottlers get a pepper sauce category, as well. That leaves the individual entries for a dozen or so poor unfortunates to reject or pass on to the handful of celebrity chef judges who decide the winner. I was one of the poor unfortunates.
The Aztexan booth
was very popular.
When I arrived at Serrano's restaurant that morning, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d imagined a room full of howling lunatics, but found instead a group of pleasant folks sitting at a long table, chatting over plates of enchiladas. Serrano's is one of the better Tex-Mex eateries in town, so I was all too happy to help myself to some breakfast—five hundred salsas on an empty stomach is never a good idea. The preliminary judges, as it turned out, were mostly media personalities and food writers who had judged for years in a row. I felt a bit out of place, but well qualified nonetheless; I'm a buyer for a hot shop. "I can handle this," I figured. "I can. Really."
Hundreds of homemade
sauces were tasted.
While talking with a few of the other judges, I tried to determine who was in their right mind. None of us, I concluded. Then…they started coming in. Slowly at first.
We began with the reds. A few were dropped in front of me and three other judges. The sauce must get three "yes's" to move on to the final judging. Three "no's" and it gets dumped in the creek (our apologies to the crawfish). We passed on the chips and grabbed spoons. The true connesouir takes it straight.
Salsa #1: Not too terrible, really. A bit strong on the cilantro and not very hot. The onions don't really taste right and give it a funky aftertaste. "No," the three of us agree.
Salsa #3: Ew. Way too much salt. Make that WAY too much. And is that liquid smoke? My face winces, giving the other judges a sign of what they have in store. All agree and away it goes.
The author looks a wee bit
confused after his experience.
Salsa #8: This one's pretty good, actually. Black flecks which means they fire-roasted it. Points in my book. Nice balance, pleasant heat. Clean finish with a nice aftertaste. Not too much cilantro…
"Hurry up! We have hundreds more!"
My back was to the door, so I didn't notice what they were loading in. I turned to face it. "You've got to be kidding me." Stacks and stacks of pint containers on a table. My stomach grumbled in protest. The pace had to pick up. We were being way too analytical. Yea or nea was all that was required.
Salsa #10: Oh, no. Terrible. Get this away from me.
Salsa #22: Here we go. This one's good. A bit thin, but the flavor is fresh and nice. It moves on.
Salsa #36: "We need to find this person and ask them one question: What did we ever do to you?!"
Salsa #45: A green one. Mmm. Avocado and tomatillo. Nice and creamy. Is that a hint of mint? Very good. Three yes's.
A TV producer from a food show asked me what I look for in a salsa. "Ah, the age old question of quality. In a word: balance. There can't be any one flavor that dominates a sauce. An ideal salsa has a beginning of mild sweet and sharp tones from the tomato, a middle of heat and flavor from the chiles that combines with the high end of cilantro or lime juice that carries to an onion and garlic finish. It must all taste fresh. If it's roasted, that gives it a nice low end which binds the whole thing together. The aftertaste should be pleasant and leave you wanting mo…"
"Let's go, we have a lot more," cracked the whip. My tongue needed the break, but enough chatting. At this point five more containers hit the table. Oh, great. "SV," special variety. That's where it got wacky.
Salsa #122: This color does not exist in nature. Nuclear green, so bright I swear it’s glowing. We all look at each other, unsure of what to do next. "Let's get Mikey." Alas, there is no Mikey to be found. I decide to take one for the team. It isn’t bad, actually. Almost good. I just can't get over the color. Sorry.
Salsa #175: Swamp water. It looks like Swamp Thing took a leak in there. I'm not eating that. I have my limits.
Salsa #216: Oh, no. Beets. My eyes are blurry. My nose is sore from wiping it. We are all giddy and woozy. The fellow judge next to me tells me she has the chills. "Endorphins," I manage to get out.
The tasting can just wear a judge out.
"Yes! ICE CREAM!" A blessed soul passed out little welcomed cups of vanilla ice cream. The anti-salsa. But the respite was over much too quickly.
Salsa #240: Mango, onion and cilantro. Very brightly colored. The first judge loves it. Mmm. Nice fresh flavor. Give it a pass. I'm not sure how much of this I can take, though. The judges are getting restless. The din brought about by punished intestines and humming endorphins permeates the room. We have become those howling lunatics I had looked for earlier.
Salsa #250: Is that brine? It tastes like seawater. I'm stirring it up looking for the sea monkeys. This one almost makes me sick. "Why am I doing this? I must be insane."
After gagging on a cross between ranch dressing and dill pickle juice, I looked around at the fellow judges with a newfound respect, like a fellow platoon after surviving a war. They come back every year for this!
"The last sauces are on the table!" the organizer announced. Sweeter words were never spoken. I'm a chilehead to the end, but enough is enough. Eyeing the last few containers, I couldn't help but feel bad for the entrants of these last salsas. Like falling over a finish line, we pounded the last few down with little thought and gave our barking verdicts like tired Roman emperors sending slaves to their doom: "Take them away!"
Surveying the aftermath, I couldn't help but laugh. The long dining table was giving its best impression of Dresden circa 1945, if Germany was made of napkins, spoons, glasses and tortilla chips. The few containers of lovingly made salsa that we allowed through were on their own table waiting for the discerning celebrity judges, each one the proud product of a budding chef, a culinary artist, a talented gourmand. The sauces that made it through our rigorous screening were all wonderful…. Except one. Those pampered final judges MUST have a taste of our pain.
Our duty fulfilled, I looked to my comrades through a punch-drunk haze, unsure of what to do next. We all opted for a beer. And more punishment. While migrating outside on our way to the Festival at Waterloo Park in the sweltering late summer afternoon in Texas, we made our best attempts at making sense of it all.
We just love the heat. That's the best I can do.
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