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It has been notoriously difficult to put on successful festivals in Houston this year. Just witness the Haute Wheels Food Truck Festival back in May, at which interminable lines were eventually met with short supplies of food, or the Houston Beer Festival debacle, where lines to get in literally circled city blocks and many, including me, just gave up entirely, even though they had pre-purchased tickets through a web deal. There have been successes though, like the Texas Beer Festival, held out in Humble, which was well-organized and allowed aficionados to sample a wide array of craft beers, earning high praise. And just this past weekend, the 11th Annual Houston Hot Sauce Festival was similarly triumphant. In fact, the only thing that would normally dampen spirits at an outdoor festival was the rain that started just after the gates opened on Saturday when I went, but given the historic drought this year, I don’t think anyone much minded.

One thing that these two latter festivals had in common, and may have contributed to their success, was that they were both held in suburbs of Houston where perhaps throngs of people were less likely to show up buying tickets at the door, or there was simply more space to accommodate the numbers. The disastrous events mentioned earlier were both held inside the loop and buckled under the weight of their convenient locations. The Texas Beer Festival plans to move downtown in 2012 to Discovery Green, so it remains to be seen whether festival organizers can repeat their success.

Hot Sauce FestivalThe Hot Sauce Festival was held at the Stafford Centre, a theater and convention center on the southwest side of town. Vendors were afforded ample space to set up their tents, and festival goers could move about with ease, never waiting in lines of more than 5 or 6 people. And it wasn’t all liquid fire on display either: there were chili powders, dry rubs, wing sauces, jams and jellies, as well as various arts and crafts. The first tent we hit was the Lady Piquant Spice Company where they were serving up tender chunks of chicken with various spice rubs, including a delicious Jamaican Jerk variety. At only the second tent of the day, the Mild to Wild Pepper & Herb Co., we got a little ahead of ourselves. They produce an array of hot sauces, and we had to go for the gold, sampling their Stupid Hot variety which, afterwards, lived up to its name and confirmed our stupidity. Interestingly, chocolate is used as one of the ingredients in this sauce, so there was a cool sweetness on the front of the palate which almost lulls you into complacency for an instant, until the pure capsaicin extract obliterates your senses and all feeling in your tongue. It was a slow build, which one can’t help thinking at every stage that it couldn’t possibly get any hotter, until uncontrollable hiccups and a runny nose let everyone in one’s vicinity know that, yes, this is as hot as they say. With little relief in sight, I actually went to the next tent and started sampling other hot sauces to try to cool my mouth down. I found a cilantro curry sauce that I thought might contain some coconut milk or something, and it did indeed help. No other hot sauces I would try that day came close to this heat, and I felt like Homer with his wax covered tongue as habanero and even ghost chili sauces registered little discomfort. Thankfully, the vendors at the festival weren’t all just trying to outdo each other on the Scoville scale of heat. Many exhibitors that I talked to made a point of saying that they put taste first when creating their sauces and rubs. They wanted us to actually taste the peppers, rather than simply giving us a chemical burn as the extracts essentially do. Chili peppers are a fruit after all, and many have a great flavor – once you get past the heat. Most of the time, smoking the peppers is a great way to temper the heat while highlighting the flavor, or simply drying them, as when jalapeños become chipotles, or poblanos become anchos. Ghost chilis, or Bhut Jolokia, carry a lot of cachet for their heat at festivals like this, or other contenders for the world’s hottest, like the newly (although assuredly contested) Trinidad Scorpion, so the name was featured on numerous labels. But when smoked, they forfeit a lot of their sting, and ultimately I didn’t find the ghost chili to be particularly appetizing. Habaneros, however, while certainly hot, also can be quite flavorful when prepared appropriately, with a citrusy flavor that complements other citrus fruits extremely well.

Several jellies and jams were delicious, like the expected mango/habanero combination, but others like cranberry and peach habanero varieties were excellent when spread on a cracker with cream cheese. I actually meant to go back for that cranberry jelly, but forgot, and ended up buying only two hot sauces before leaving. One I particularly liked was the Hatchanero sauce from Hot Line Pepper Products, a fire roasted blend of the famous, and much sought after, Hatch chilis along with habaneros. There was certainly a noticeable kick of heat, but the roasting of the peppers serves to showcase their flavors in a sauce I look forward to using on chicken or enchilada dinners. The other purchase, yes, was that Stupid Hot sauce that nearly knocked me senseless. We were meeting up with some friends celebrating a birthday after the festival, and I just knew they would be skeptical of my descriptions of the hottest sauce I had tried, a question I was sure to get. So I wanted to be prepared to produce the sauce when met with their disbelief. The fiery concoction went unassayed as we watched football that afternoon, but I hold it in reserve for another time.

Ultimately, this was a great little festival that delivered big on its promises. Despite the early rain and the sultry air afterwards, festival goers cooled off with frozen treats from different food stands, or wiped the sweat from their brows as the peppers – nature’s air conditioning – took effect. I look forward to visiting the Houston Hot Sauce Festival again next year.


Post from jack | around
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