August 19, 2008
If you are what you eat, wouldn’t you rather be hot? Exactly. The hotter the better. There will be plenty of time to cool off when you’re dead, so you might as well peg your needle to the red. Food is no exception. There’s nothing wrong with mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, and banana cream pie. They’ll keep you alive, but they aren’t very exciting – well actually, banana cream pie can be interesting with the right models and photographer, but the same could be said of a pitcher of milk. There is a place in the world for blandness – probably somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa – but Austin is a little closer to the edge … of the continent. We bump and grind against other cultures a bit more than the folks in the soft middle, and we like it. Our preference for mixing things up carries over to our food as well. We put garlic and pepper in our mashed potatoes, jalapeños in our cheeseburgers, and pretty much anything that isn’t still moving in our tortillas. Most importantly, we put chips in our hot sauce – again and again and again. So many times that we’re often too stuffed for the entrée. You might ask yourself, “Why do we call it hot sauce instead of salsa?” Answer: We’re south, but we’re not that far south. Our tortillas are still mostly flour instead of corn. We like cheese and sour cream on our tacos too, but when it comes to salsa, we like it hot, which may be why we can’t seem to consistently call it by its true name unless we’re trying to bridge a language barrier. We got the love, though. Austinites will forgive a frightening amount of culinary ineptitude as long as the hot sauce is decent. If you’ve ever bought a day-old sausage-and-egg taco out of a cooler in the back of a dented Toyota pickup truck with a camper shell, sold by someone with dirty fingernails who counts out your change entirely in Spanish, you truly understand the importance of good salsa. When it’s made right, salsa is the culinary correction tape of the Southwest. You can burn your brisket, overboil your beans, steam your rice into a soggy paste, but if you can make a good hot sauce, all is forgiven – bonus points if you can back it up with a decent margarita. There are plenty of Austin restaurants that have built their clientele on those two items alone. Where else in America can you peddle saltines and government cheese and stay in business for more than a week? It could be that Austinites just need more sweat and vitamin C than other blander burghs, or it could be that we’re simply a city of masochists. Whatever the case, hot sauce is unquestionably the most important element in Austin cuisine, even though it’s rarely listed on the menu. If you don’t believe it, come down to Waterloo Park this Sunday where more than 10,000 of your fellow Austinites will prove their love in the withering August heat. Sample hot sauce from some of Austin’s favorite restaurants, or bring a batch of your own to enter in the contest. And, since this is Austin, there will be plenty of beer and music by Girl in the Closet, Fingerpistol, Jungle Rockers, Band of Heathens, and Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears. Best of all, admission is free when you bring three nonperishable food items for the Capital Area Food Bank.