August 27, 2009
It’s going to be hot at The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival this Sunday. Crazy hot. Maybe like 1,900 degrees … in the shade. Don’t let Jim Spencer or Mark Murray or Troy Kimmel or that bouncy dude on Fox with the shopping-mall hairdo tell you any differently. They might appeal to your sense of idiotic optimism with the promise of a 10% chance of rain – dangle it in front of your nose like a bacon-flavored dog biscuit – but the only thing falling out of the sky on Sunday will be blistering rays of sunshine and dehydrated grackles. In other words, the weather on Sunday will be absolutely perfect for the festival: scorching – the kind of insanely intense heat that should scare away the curious, the delicate, and the apathetic. Besides, anyone who is really into hot sauce won’t let the possibility of 100-plus weather hold them back. They’re coming for the heat. They’re coming to sweat. After all, a good salsa will make you sweat no matter what the temperature. Like a whore in church. Like a pedophile at a preschool. Like the kid in the rat suit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. If the preceding sounds a bit masochistic, it is. The pepper is an acquired taste. Like coffee, it generally needs to be mixed with something to make it palatable: tomatoes, tomatillos, mangoes … anything to soften the blow. You may prefer your coffee black now, but back in the early days of your addiction, you liked it with lots of cream and sugar – the K-Y and Astroglide of coffee consumption. Capsaicin addicts tend to start slowly too. You can’t just shovel a bunch of habaneros into your mouth and expect a happy ending. Au contraire. In fact, you might want to prophylactically apply a topical ointment to your ending if you somehow managed to choke a habanero down your gullet. Perhaps some actual K-Y might do the trick. Regardless, like sex, with peppers your best bet is to work your way up slowly. A good road map is the Scoville scale: bell, pimento, poblano, jalapeño, serrano, habanero, and naga jolokia, which if eaten whole will kill you, your children, and your childrens’ children. Most people tend to put the brakes on capsaicin consumption somewhere around habanero. Really, beyond that you might as well just shoot yourself in the mouth with pepper spray. At a certain point, the pain from the capsaicin completely obliterates any other nuance of flavor. With habaneros, at least you get a few seconds of actual pepper taste before you start looking for a fire hose to spray out your mouth. Serranos are the peppers most often found in traditional red salsa. In the right quantity they can be exceptionally hot as well, but they’re also quite flavorful. The same is true of most peppers if they’re well prepared. That, of course, is the challenge, and the reason the Chronicle devotes one blistering hot Sunday a year to hot sauce and all its varied forms and flavors. It’s an epicurean adventure with a decidedly masochistic twist. It’s also an Austin institution, hell or hot weather. So … are you in?