A Taste Test That's Not For the Faint of Heart

Judges sample 300 entries at Austin's sizzling hot-sauce contest, and the winner is....

Philadelphia is renowned for its cheese steak. San Francisco revels in its sourdough. Here in Austin, though, hot sauce is king.

In the hottest month of the year, at one of the hottest places in the country, aspiring chefs fire up their skillets in search of hot-sauce glory. And each year more than 10,000 people queue up to sample the entries in the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest, possibly the biggest hot-sauce confab in the world.

This past weekend, I and a half dozen other judges braved the 100-degree heat to sample more than 300 versions of red, green, orange, yellow, and even purple hot sauce. Some were delectable. The majority were mediocre. A few were positively putrid.

For the winner, much more is at stake than a blue ribbon. In a town where the local supermarket carries 91 different types of Austin-made salsas, and dozens more imported from elsewhere, the marketing opportunities for a prize-winning hot sauce are obvious.

Why Austin?

"People in Austin make hot sauce because we grow the ingredients in our backyards," explains Robb Walsh, the founder of the event who also writes a food column for Natural History magazine. "You don't have to be a gardener to grow hot peppers, and yet your backyard can yield wonderful hot sauce." Indeed, tomatoes and chiles flavor most sauces, which can be spiced up with offbeat items like coffee grounds or coconut oil.

Whatever the reason, Austin boasts no fewer than 50 vendors who are now bottling and marketing salsas in the city. Every Mexican restaurant in town - and there are more than 120 of them - offers a different version of the ubiquitous dip.

Now in its sixth year, the contest regularly draws salsa devotees from throughout Texas and the United States. To protect judges from sauces that are too hot, entrants must eat a spoonful of their creation in front of contest officials. That's to prevent entries like the one a few years ago at the Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, N.M. There, the salsa in question contained pure capsicum extract, the ingredient found in pepper gas. Event organizers prohibited attendees from tasting the fiery mixture, a move the salsa's maker then used to tout his creation.

AUSTIN'S salsa craze has spawned a rival competition: the Austin Salsa Search. Sponsored by the daily Austin American-Statesman, the first contest drew nearly 800 entries. Its winner, announced last week, is Randy Wilkowich.

Mr. Wilkowich, a medical technician in real life, is Austin's reigning hot-sauce king. In addition to winning the new Salsa Search, he has out-cooked chefs at the Hot Sauce Contest the past two years. Wilkowich spent three years perfecting his red sauce, which includes tomatoes, onions, chipotle peppers, cumin, cilantro, sugar, and garlic salt. A native of Canada, he remembers his first encounter with Texas salsa: "It was terrible, it was so hot."

Like many former contest winners, Wilkowich will soon begin commercial production of his hot sauce. He expects it to be available on supermarket shelves within the next six months.

Patrick Timpone, owner of Timpone's Fresh Foods, one of Austin's many salsa companies, began marketing his salsa eight years ago. A three-time winner of the Hot Sauce Contest, Mr. Timpone now markets three different salsas in all 50 states, and he expects his company will see sales of about $2 million this year.

"People are now buying more salsa than ketchup," says Timpone. "People are putting it on eggs, potatoes, whatever they can find. Kids are putting it on macaroni and cheese."

Mr. Walsh theorizes that Austin's devotion to hot sauce may be attributed to capsaicin, the ingredient that makes jalapeos and other chiles hot.

"It's not just a flavor, it's a thrill," he says. "There's something about hot and spicy food that is more than just satisfying and comforting. It's dangerous."

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