Eat the Heat (podcast)Aug 9th, 2012 | By Cecilia | Category: Featured Articles, podcast, the show
22nd Annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival |August 26, 2012 |11:00 a.m. -0 5:30 p.m.
Fiesta Gardens | 2100 Jesse E. Segovia St | Admission: FREE
(Attendees are asked to bring three cans of non-perishable food for the Capital Area Food Bank)
Chile peppers thrive this time of year in the garden. And that’s good news, because they’re the foundation of some of the best salsas around. If you’re in a salsa making mood, enter your capsaicin concoction into the 22nd annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, August 26, at its new venue — Fiesta Gardens.
Robb Walsh is head judge and festival founder. He says it all started when farmers at the Travis County Farmers Market in Austin, Texas wanted to have a competition to see who had the most flavorful and hottest peppers. After the county extension agent declined an invitation to judge the produce, the market manager turned to Robb, who was a known “heat eater.”
After the contest, Robb told the manager nobody really eats hot peppers raw, and that the best way to pit pepper against pepper is in a salsa; the next year the festival was born.
There are three levels of competition: individuals (homemade), restaurants, and commercial bottlers.
During last year’s festival, I spent a lively morning with a roomful of preliminary judges assessing entries. I sat at the end of a long wooden table with the Alvarado brothers — Henry and Fred — judges since the Hot Sauce Festival began, and their boyhood friend Carlos Contreras, a judge for the past 19 years. They were a fearsome trio of tasting titans.
We sampled dozens of salsas of varying colors, textures and heat. Some were delicious while others fell flat. Fred Alvarado told me about one of the worst salsas he tasted in his years as a preliminary judge. “Usually, most salsas are pretty good, but this one had coffee grounds in it. Anyone who tried it ended up with black specks all over their teeth. It was nasty!”
Judges taste and assess hundreds of entries from the various categories in order to send the best of each to Robb Walsh and his celebrity judges. The celebrities take a more measured approach to the judging, evaluating the salsas on a wide range of criteria, and filling out a score sheet.
The preliminary judges have no forms to fill out, or scores to tally, they simply give the entries a “yes” or “no”. If a salsa receives three yeses, then they move on to the celebrity judges. Three nos and they’re relegated to the losers table — even if other judges have not had a chance to taste them. The prelim judges are thoughtful about their choices, too. Henry Alvarado told me as a preliminary judge, he looks for balance. “I don’t like to get heat right away. I like to get the flavor first, and then have the heat creep up on me.”
Most preliminary judges are veterans of the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, including the Alvarado brothers’ friend Carlos Contreras. And for Carlos, tradition keeps him coming back. “We grew up in West Texas eating chiles, and it’s been part of our family tradition. We used to go and pick chiles in New Mexico, and roast them and peel them. So, [the Hot Sauce Festival judging] it’s always been something cultural and familial that we do on a yearly basis.”
Prior to last year, festival attendees could sample any and every entry in the tasting tent, and then vote for their favorite. But the Texas Health department cracked down on serving unregulated salsas. Today, entrants who want to festivalgoers to judge their salsas must prepare their entries in a certified commercial kitchen. On Friday, Aug. 24, and Saturday, Aug. 25, Just Add Chef”s commercial kitchen will be available for FREE so that entrants can make their hot sauce.
Just Add Chef is located at 3505 N. I-35. Hours of availability: Friday, Aug. 24, 2pm-6pm; Saturday, Aug. 25, 9am-6pm. Call Herb at 708-1125 to schedule your appointment.
All preliminary judges take the task seriously, especially when it comes to sending their celebrity counterparts a ringer — that’s a salsa the Henry and Fred Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, and other conspirators deem as the worst of the worst. Fred explains he tradition started when one of the celebrity judges made some rather disparaging remarks about the palates of the preliminary judges, saying they were sending the celebrities “crap”.
So the next year, remembering the judge’s comment, Fred and Henry Alvarado and their pal Carlos Contreras, sent the judges that coffee imbued salsa we mentioned earlier.
The lesson: Never disparage the people who decide what you’ll be tasting.
And Robb Walsh says if you plan on attending the 22 Annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival on August 26 at Fiesta Gardens, be ready to fry a few taste buds and drink some beer. Because as he say: “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”