There was a point, roughly around the 84th salsa that I'd consumed, when I was absolutely certain that I was about to see the face of God. If I were a Simpsons character, this would have been when I'd just coated the inside of my mouth with candle wax and was about to partake in a lengthy conversation with a space coyote who sounded eerily like Johnny Cash. I began to question my own sanity as my head throbbed, my nose gushed and my stomach rebelled like a man on PCP being arrested by the cops. This might have been a bad idea.
This past Sunday, I was a preliminary judge at the 19th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, an event founded by our own Robb Walsh when he was still writing for the Chronicle and hosted by the man himself every year. The format of the competition allows entrants to submit their salsas in one of two main categories -- individual or restaurant -- and one of several salsa categories -- red, green and specialty. More than 400 salsas were entered this year, and only a select few make it past the preliminary judges and onto the final judging panel. Commercial bottlers can also enter their concoctions, but these are sent straight to the judging pros.
In the comfortable, air conditioned confines of a private dining room at Serrano's Tex-Mex, the preliminary judges got down to business beginning at 11 a.m. Most of the 40-odd people assembled were long-time tasters, such as the trio of gentlemen at the far end of the long table: Fred, Carlos and Henry, dubbed "The El Paso Connection" for their West Texas roots. They'd been judging the salsas for almost as long as they'd known each other, and dispensed sage advice throughout the afternoon.
Sitting across the table from me was Frank Mancuso, a sales representative for Saint Arnold who was celebrating his 50th birthday (and fifth year of judging). He warned against using the baskets of tortillas chips when tasting the salsas, noting that not only does the salt change the flavor of the salsa, but makes you fill up faster. I foolishly ignored his advice and began trucking through tub after tub of salsa as it hit the table.
As soon as one salsa got three "yes" votes from the preliminary judges, it was moved to a table and set aside for final judging later on. But as soon as a salsa got three "no" votes, it was removed and set shamefully under a long table set against one wall. With 400 salsas -- and most of them terrible -- the underbelly of the table began to fill up quickly.
The green salsas were the easiest to judge -- you knew what to expect here. No strange ingredients, no hidden habanero peppers and no spice cabinet full of cumin dumped in (as was the issue with so many red salsas). The red salsas ran the gamut from fresh, bright and wonderful to "tastes like pureed compost with tomato paste and fish sauce thrown in." The special variety salsas were the most interesting, of course, with entries containing items like hominy, prickly pear, grapes, kiwi and some wholly unidentifiable ingredients. Some were so awful as to be instantly spit out by judges or to require an immediate trip to the restroom.
In the end, I only made it through roughly a quarter of the salsas before admitting defeat. I took solace in the fact that I was one of the first to begin judging that day and definitely not the first to leave the table. The copious amounts of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream and Saint Arnold's Amber Ale did nothing to quell the beast inside my stomach by that point and, in fact, probably only made it more vicious.
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Afterwards, I laid down in my truck, directly underneath an a/c vent, and then moaned pitifully to myself for the rest of the drive back to Houston. For his part, Robb Walsh had an easy job (although he may argue otherwise): The panel of final judges only had to try the good salsas. The preliminary judges got the short end of the stick, plowing through salsas that tasted as if someone had boiled down a tennis shoe and thrown in 80 jalapeno peppers. But will I do it again next year? You bet your Scotch bonnet.
A full list of winners from the competition can be found at the Austin Chronicle.
Fore more images from the competition, check out our slideshow.