Photo: Stepanek Photography/Shutterstock

Dispatch From Austin's Hot Sauce Festival

Austin Travel
by Hal Amen Aug 29, 2011
A blow by blow of Hal Amen’s experience at the 21st-annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival.

I wake up to the weather on KUT. Projected high of 109 (some parts of town will hit 112, tying the all-time Austin record). Immediately think of the girl I saw at last year’s festival…staggering towards the water tent, stopping, eyes rolled back…she took out a folding table on her way down.

Definitely bringing the camelback today.

In the passenger seat of my sister’s car. A/C blasting. Down at Waterloo Park, the gates are opening. We’ll be there in five. Donation canned goods, sunscreen, camelbacks, and tortilla chip contraband is piled in the back seat next to my wife.

KUT weather again. “The time is 11 o’clock, and it’s already one hundred and one degrees out there…” says the voice in that mix of shock/disgust/resignation all weather reporters have adopted this summer.

We groan. Commence jokes about “hot” sauce.

Groups huddle under oaks and pecans like herds of Hill Country cattle, violently flapping paper fans.

We park the car, step out into the sun, get on our getups. Cheap shop clamps, bright green rubber handles and tips, clip bags of El Milagro (¡Delgado y Crujiente!) to our waists.

I go double-barreled. I consider a potential nickname: Totopo Warrior. It doesn’t stick.

We walk up the block to the gate, chip bags swinging in stride. We drop our three canned goods each into the donation box and go in.

The pre-noon 100F has not kept people away. Lines stretch from every salsa booth. Groups huddle under oaks and pecans like herds of Hill Country cattle, violently flapping paper fans with Chronicle and Car2go logos.

I crack bag #1 and we step in line.

Time to make our first pass through the tasting tent. This is the big covered area in the middle with ~10 tasting assembly lines, each with 10-12 salsas to try. Most come in homemade tubs, marked only with contest entry numbers. You vote for your faves when you’re done.

The lines for each tasting avenue are long and in the sun. Conversation overheard in line:
“It’s gittin’ hot enough out here to drop drawers.”
“No one wants ta see that.”
“Well, it’s warm out so I won’t mind meetin’ everyone.”
“That’s right, better than cold, hahaha.”

This does not affect my appetite for salsa.

We’ve made two passes through the tasting tent and hit pretty much every booth. My lip is burning from some “ghost pepper” sauce.

People are loving our hip-drawn Milagros. It’s a local company and, well, they are the shit. I’ve opened bag #2 but am nowhere close to the bottom. I am no Tom Gates.

We’re standing in the crowd around some portable A/C units that seem like they’re just blowing ambient air. Feels good though.

We each kinda feel done. We discuss. There have been lots of good salsas, and also some shitty ones. The specifics are hard to remember, but to me the standouts this year were not the salsas but the sauces. I buy a jar of Granddaddy’s Sweet Southern Heat. Sally goes for Hobo Jim’s Hair of the Dawg.

We call it two hours of successful hot sauce smackdown and leave happy.

Make it to Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs before the rush. We sit on their porch step, eating crushed ice smothered in ridiculously flavored syrup and watch the world melt.

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