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Sad to See Old Traditions Die: The Austin Hot Sauce Contest

30 years ago, I founded the Austin Hot Sauce Contest. I served as head judge for 26 years. Covid cancelled this year’s party, ending a tradition.

Here’s an intro I wrote for the Austin Chronicle in the late 1990s explaining the origins of the Hot Sauce Contest;

We called it “hot sauce” when I was a student at the University of Texas in the 1970s. Unless you were speaking Spanish, then you said “salsa picante.” At the grocery store, you looked for “picante sauce.” Every Tex-Mex restaurant put a bowl of the stuff on the table. Most of them served it with tortilla chips. In the 1950s and 1960s, before tortilla chips were common, Tex-Mex restaurant patrons ate their hot sauce with buttered saltines. At a few old time capsule Tex-Mex joints like El Patio in Austin, they still do.

When the Southwestern cuisine came along in the mid-1980s, food lovers started calling it “salsa” and chefs started taking it seriously. Exotic interior Mexican salsas made with all kinds of different chiles began to appear. Habanero salsas, green chile salsas, and salsas with exotic ingredients started turning up. I was the restaurant critic of the Austin Chronicle at the time, and I became a salsa connoisseur.

In 1989, the Travis County Farmer’s Market sponsored a gardening competition. While the county agent was perfectly willing to judge peaches and watermelons, he wasn’t willing to munch on jalapeño peppers. So Hill Rylander, who ran the farmers market at the time, called me and asked me to be the chile judge. I actually bit into some raw jalapeños and picked a winner. But I observed that since few people actually ate raw peppers, it might make more sense to hold a pepper sauce competition. Rylander loved the idea and resolved to hold it the next year.

Around that time, I wrote an article in Chile Pepper Magazine calling Austin the hot sauce capital of the world. Predictably, salsa freaks in other cities disagreed. The San Antonio Current, a weekly newspaper in the Alamo City challenged the Austin Chronicle to a contest–San Antonio versus Austin hot sauces–judged blind by top chefs. The first “Hot Sauce Contest” as the event was originally known, was held at the Travis County Farmer’s Market in 1990.

It was held outdoors on a Sunday afternoon in late August–the peak of the chile pepper growing season and the hottest part of the summer. We had a few musicians come and play and we asked a caterer to supply some beer.

For the first few years, my work mate Henry Alvarado, his brother and some friends from El Paso judged along with my brother Dave and my best friend, Phil Born. Don Walser played under the trees and a tradition was born.

In later years, we invited top Texas chefs like Stephan Pyles and Bruce Auden to be judges. And every year it got bigger. What started out as a contest with a few spectators turned into one of the best parties of the year. When 10,000 people showed up at the Travis County Farmer’s Market one year, traffic came to a halt in north central Austin and we were asked to relocate.

In its seventh year, the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, as the event is now officially known, moved to a clearing in the woods of Waterloo Park. There was a lot of apprehension about the move, but as it turned out, the sylvan grove fit the event like an old pair of slippers. The stage tucked neatly between a pair of giant live oaks that kept the bands in the shade. An orderly procession of tents and booths kept the beer and hot sauce flowing non-stop. And plumes of sweet-smelling smoke rising from barbecue rigs, fajita grills and green chile roasters put a lovely blue haze on the edges.

We started out with red and green salsa categories. After a couple of years, we had to add a catch-all category called “special variety” to accommodate the Caribbean tropical fruit sauces that became popular in the mid-1990s. These weren’t the sort of tortilla chip dips that we were used to. They were sweet and hot salsas that tasted best with grilled fish or grilled pork.

We received around 400 salsas on average each year. I would estimate that around 70 percent of the entries were old-fashioned Tex-Mex picante sauces made with tomatoes. These were divided into the fresh-tasting type frequently seasoned with cilantro, and a smoky flavored type with smoked tomatoes and chipotles. (And occasionally liquid smoke.) Green sauces made with tomatillos represent maybe ten percent of the total. The other twenty percent or so are entered in the creative “special variety” category.

A curry-flavored Indian sauce won the special variety category one year. Indonesian sambals, Thai peanut butter satay sauces, and fruity chutneys have all shown up in the special variety category along with such oddities as dried cherry salsas, fig salsas and one that contained coffee grounds. I still remember a dark orange-colored pumpkin habanero salsa from a little South Austin restaurant that won the “Special Variety-Restaurant” category in one of the first years of the contest.

That pumpkin salsa was so good, I went to the restaurant and asked for it some weeks later. Sadly, it turned out they only made it for special occasions. I still remember that salsa and that little restaurant. It was called Seis Salsas.

There was a circular salsa bar in the middle of the restaurant where you selected your condiments. And everyday they put out six different varieties of salsa. I don’t remember much about the food, but I remember the salsas. There was red and green, of course and fresh chopped pico de gallo. There was a ridiculously hot brick-red chile arbol sauce and there was always some variety of dark brown dried chile salsa. And there was a wild card–it could be anything.

Seis Salsas disappeared in the mid-1990s. But the salsa bar concept is still around. It’s an idea worth borrowing for your backyard barbecue. Line up five or six bowls and line them with several salsas and other appropriate condiments. You’ll be surprised how popular the add-ons really are. Salsa is the difference between good and great. And there’s something about the audience participation involved in seasoning your own tacos that makes them taste better.

The 19th Annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival in 2009 attracted more than 15,000 festival goers. We judged around 425 hot sauces.

(Hill Rylander, Phil Born and Don Walser have all passed away since I wrote that piece.)

The Festival moved to Fiesta Gardens in the later years. In 2013, I published The Hot Sauce Cookbook. It recounted the many years of the contest and offered lots of recipes inspired by the sauces we sampled over the years.

I said goodbye in August of 2016. After 26 years as head judge, the Austin Chronicle graciously bought out my financial interest in the contest and continued without me.

Sad to see old traditions die.

2020 would have been Henry Alvarado’s 30th year as a preliminary judge But this year, thanks to Covid, the party’s over. There won’t be any people standing in line with their entries. And no gathering of preliminary judges–or final judges either. The 30th annual will be a stay-at-home “virtual” event held entirely online. (Check the Austin Chronicle website for details.)

I wonder if the traditional hot sauce contest will ever come back?

Oh well, It was fun while it lasted.

Here’s a hot sauce recipe to make at home:

Grilled Tomato Hot Sauce

Makes 2 to 3 cups

After you’re done grilling a steak or whatever, take advantage of those hot coals. Stick some tomatoes and chile peppers on the grill and get some nice char flavor for your salsa. Grilling tomatoes over charcoal gives them an even better flavor than drying them in the oven. This is an outstanding everyday table sauce.

3 large tomatoes
1 onion, cut in half
2 jalapeños

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Char tomatoes, onion and jalapeños on a grill over dying coals and let them cook for at least 5 minutes turning several times. Chop the charred tomatoes, onions and jalapeños coarsely, then transfer to a food processor. Add the minced garlic and lemon juice and pulse for 30 seconds or until the mixture forms a sauce, but remains a little chunky.

Transfer to a bowl and season with salt to taste. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to a week. Add the cilantro just before serving.

 

 

Life As We Know It: Covid Pandemic

Tourism is the dominant industry in the Burren region of Western Ireland. Now the Burren has gone eerily quiet. No bright green “Paddy Wagon” tour busses whizzing along the narrow roads. No crazy German kids hiking with oversize backpacks. And no business for the pubs, restaurants, hotels, Airbnb flats and roadside attractions that are normally teeming with tourists this time of year. The Clare newspaper reported that the local economy has gone off a cliff.

I am supposed to be in Texas right now. On March 28, I was scheduled to give a talk at the 10th Annual Foodways Texas Symposium in San Antonio. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. The Corona virus pandemic swallowed up the world as we know it. My Aer Lingus flight was cancelled, and so was my Spring trip to Texas.

Today is Friday April 17. The current death toll in the Republic of Ireland is 486. There was a lot of sadness here on the death of John Prine, who had a summer home nearby and was frequently seen in the local pubs.

Three weeks ago, on Friday March 27th, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar ordered Ireland to go on lockdown. You can only leave your house for groceries, medical necessities and exercise. The rules were later toughened to limit the distance you could travel for exercise to 2 kilometers.

It’s been a trying time. Granted, there are worse places to be stuck for weeks on end.  I can sit for hours and admire the view out my back window. Rural Ireland is certainly beautiful, but we miss Uber Eats and drive-through lanes. The nearest restaurant doing “takeaway” as they call it is a 15-minute drive.

Day to day life is the regular routine. I mow the lawn a lot more than I used to. And its easier to make time for mundane chores. But as daughter Ava pithily observed last night: “You are doing exactly the same thing you always do. Hanging around at home, cooking and gardening.”

Well, partially true anyway. I used to spend hours everyday ferrying children to school and back and getting them to their sports events. And I once enjoyed driving around Ireland checking out markets, fishmongers and restaurants too. Now I am mostly confined to my own kitchen.

Wrote a facebook post about “boredom baking” being the opposite of “rage baking.” I am keeping the family in fresh bread and broadening my horizons as a boulanger. I still use a bread machine to mix, knead and rise the dough, but I’m turning out all kinds of bauguettes, boules, pizzas and rolls. I think I’ll call this batch pain de campagne.

I’m also very glad I invested in a few bags of oysters in Pouldoody Bay, where I live. Oyster farmer Feargal Langley was kind enough to sell me four bags on my own little trestle. They are only exposed on a very low tide, so timing is everything.

My friend Dave Donohue brings me a couple of dozen every time he goes down to check his own bags. Last month, he brought me a huge 9-inch oyster which I cooked on the grill with garlic butter. It was so big, I had to cut it into four pieces to eat it. Good lord it was tasty.

Kelly continues to progress on her Ph.D at Burren College of Art. One of her fellow doctoral students is a Chinese portrait artist named Qi Chen. He created this portrait of me for a recent show. Not sure if its just the Covid consciousness talking, but do you think I look a little Chinese here, or maybe like a descendant of Genghis Khan?

I hope you and your family are safe, dear reader. We are doing our best to stay out of harm’s way here–and wondering what life will be like when the pandemic is over.

Manchester

Visited Manchester for the first time in January to celebrate Julia and Andy’s wedding. The defining Mancusian experience– I watched Liverpool play Manchester United on TV at the Shakespeare Pub with Andy, my new son-in-law. Many pints were consumed.

Spent much of the five day trip exploring Manchester’s multicultural restaurant scene.

Yank Sing dim sum Sunday brunch was top notch. Hedgehog buns filled with sweet custard were a big hit with the kids.

We also ate Korean BBQ, a Thai lunch, a Turkish feast with mezze and kebabs, and two sumptous dinners at Indian restaurants–one at Mughli, a hipster Indian joint on Manchester’s famous Curry Mile.

Kelly and kids did some shopping at the Arndale mall. They were happy to find a 5 Guys Burgers & Fries for their lunch.

Meanwhile I checked out Shoryu Manchester, a fabulous ramen restaurant in Piccadilly Gardens.

The city is compact and easily walkable. We had a blast exploring libraries, museums, parks and squares.

Oh and pubs. Lots and lots of pubs.

Twenty Twenty Vision

The end of a decade is upon us and the English-speaking world is weary of political dramas. So let’s turn our attention elsewhere.

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.’

Looking forward to our traditional dinner of cabbage and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day 2020. The day will mark not just the new decade, but also two years for our family in Ireland. Your guess is as good as mine how long we will stay.

Last week, I celebrated my 67th birthday with Kelly and the kids in Galway. The kids had McDonald’s delivered to our Airbnb apartment and Kelly and I had dinner at Aniar.

Dexter beef with seaweed and elderberries at Aniar

The next morning, I took a train to Dublin and met my high school chum, Joe Shea, for day two of the birthday extravaganza. He and I had the best pizza in Ireland out in Rathmines, then relaxed with couple of pints at the Library Bar at the Central Hotel. As you can see, Joe takes his relaxing seriously.

On December 8, Kelly hosted the opening of a show at X P-O, the former post office turned art center in the village of Kilnaboy. Kelly’s portraits were a hit and the party was grand. The large turnout surprised us given the fact that a winter storm was raging outside and Kilnaboy is a bit remote. Centuries ago, this was a major religious center with thousands of inhabitants, but Kilnaboy is nearly a ghost town now, the population was 347 in the last census.

I made a large pot of chili for the opening and we served chili with cheese and tortilla chips and margaritas to the crowd. The chili was devoured long before the party ended. Ava and Joe did the bartending. I say, teach your children useful skills early in life.

A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.’

Winter is oyster season on old Pouldoody Bay and my bags are full of plump ones. David Donohue and I went down and grabbed some for a barbecue the other day. They were fabulous.

My New Year’s resolution is to empty a whole bag of my gigas oysters and to visit Moran’s oyster bar every week during oyster season and eat as many “natives” as I can.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.”

Happy 2020!

The Summer’s Gone, it’s Fall in Ireland

The days are getting shorter and the temperature rarely breaks 60°F these days.

But it was quite a summer. Our 4th of July BBQ was a blow-out. Kelly’s Houston book club came to visit and we put them all to work making their favorite side dishes. I smoked a massive 10 kilo pork shoulder and seasoned it with North Carolina style vinegar and pepper sauce and served chopped pork sandwiches to 60 guests.

The British Open was in Northern Ireland in mid-July, so brother Gordon, his wife Sandy, golf buddy Alan Lazarus and wife Susan came over. We partied in Belfast and went to Royal Portrush for the last practice day of the Open. Joe got Ricky Fowler’s autograph.

On TV, we watched hero Shame Lowry win the Open for Ireland. Alan, Gordon, Joe and I did an Irish golf safari, playing three of the top courses in the country as well as my neighborhood links in Gort. Back at the house in New Quay, Alan and I turned out some memorable meals, including an Irish lobster feast.

Now it’s fall semester again as we near the 2-year mark on our Irish adventure. The kids are happy to be back to school, although Ava isn’t fond of the Catholic high school uniforms at Seamount College, which is the name of her secondary school.

She is working on a rap song about homeroom 1D, where they put her along with all the late arrivals and out-of-county students.

Joe is playing hurling, soccer, rugby and basketball. Getting him to all those practices and games is an occupation.

Kelly is starting her 4th semester in the Ph.D program at Burren College of Art. Her last show at the school gallery was titled Strange Bedfellows. Her paintings were also shown this summer in the NUI Galway faculty lounge. She has another show coming up in the fall.

And I will be in NYC October 24-27 for the Food Film Festival. A movie I produced called “Donut People” was chosen for a screening. I plan to take part in the festival and visit with my old pal, George Motz, the festival’s founder.

Looking forward to a great season for the Texas Longhorns! Hook ’em!

 

Corpus Christi: Red Snapper Fishing

We were on the water at dawn on Saturday June 1 for the opening of fishing season for Gulf Red Snapper in Federal waters.

We launched from the Marker 37 Marina in Corpus Christi and made our way through the bays and out the jetty.

Captain Danny took us 20 miles offshore to a reef where five fishing boats clustered. We caught a huge mangrove snapper–but none of the red snapper we were targeting. At a second location, we encountered even more boats and caught a red snapper or two.

Finally we hit the jackpot at a third reef. The bottom was 165 feet down, but the fish were thick at around 80 feet. The fishing line changed color every ten feet so you could figure out how far down your hook was. We were using big pieces of squid on circle hooks for bait.

These were some big fish that hadn’t seen any fishermen in 9 months. They hit the baits violently and fought hard.

At one point four of us were standing along the rail reeling up four fish at the same time. I caught my limit and enjoyed the fight.

Looking forward to dinner!

Here’s the legalese from Texas Parks & Wildlife:  AUSTIN- The private recreational angler red snapper season opens Saturday, June 1, 2019 for a projected 97-days in federal waters. Red snapper fishing is open year around in state waters. The season length is based on historical landing data, last year’s fishing effort data and the increase in the state’s allocation from the 2018 stock assessment. Bag and size limits will remain unchanged; 2 fish per person daily with a 16-inch minimum size limit in federal waters, and 4 fish per person daily with a 15-inch minimum in state waters.

Eire-Mex: Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is a minor holiday in Mexico, dwarfed in importance by Mexican Independence Day.

For reasons that defy logic, Texans embrace the 5th of May as the day to celebrate all things Mexican. Or is it just an excuse to drink tequila?

We continued the tradition with our Eire-Mex 5th of May party featuring: Grilled oysters, margaritas, and chips and salsa for appetizers. I got the oysters from my own bags in Pouldoody Bay.

Mains were BBQ Irish pork, chicken and ribs, with sides of verde chilaquiles and black beans with smoked pork.

I had the Texas offset and the Kamado Joe fired up for the party.

Our friends in Ireland had never heard of Cinco de Mayo, but that’s okay since nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo in Mexico either.

Like chips and salsa and frozen margaritas, Cinco de Drinko fiestas are a Tex-Mex creation.

And Kelly and I are delighted to bring our Mexican Mashup tradition across the pond.

In a Bar with Irish Spring at Hand

Irish Winter is the best season for sitting in pubs and complaining about the weather (while eating oysters and drinking Guinness). I can hold my own at this sport.

At the beginning of winter, I went and visited Joe Shea, my best friend from Trumbull High School, who has been living in Ireland for decades. We hadn’t seen each other in 40 years.

Joe is a beekeeper in the Mourne Mountains and just contributed an article on the subject to the IrelandEats.com blog.

Joe joined us for Thanksgiving in Clare.

In January, my wife, Ph.D candidate Kelly Klaasmeyer, started her 2nd year at Burren College of Art and Ava and Joe went back to elementary school.

 

Spring is upon us now.

I know it seems early to declare the end of winter in February, but the Irish have a different system of marking the seasons. Whereas Americans rely on complicated computations based on the dates of solstices and equinoxes, here in Ireland they simply divide the 12 months of the year by 4 seasons and assign 3 months to each.

Springtime is February, March and April. Summer is May, June and July. Autumn is August, September and October. And Winter is November, December and January.

Never mind that August is the hottest month of the year in Texas (except when it’s even hotter in September). And in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil determines the start of American winter on Groundhog’s Day. But weather and burrowing animals be damned, February is Irish Spring.

This year it’s hard to argue. The winter was pretty mild and in the middle of February, the roadsides are already decorated with yellow and white daffodils. The wild garlic, a Springtime forager’s treat, is popping up early and (thanks to Dave Donohue) I’ve got a jar of wild garlic pesto in the fridge already.

Every time we have a sunny afternoon, the Spring Gardening bug starts biting me.

I installed a polytunnel (we call them hoophouses in Texas) back in January. It’s a metal frame wrapped in plastic and you can’t grow tomatoes or chile peppers without one here in Ireland–summers are too cold and too windy.

The bad news is that even in a polytunnel, tomato vines don’t start fruiting until July–the good news is you can keep harvesting tomatoes until Halloween.

Ed at the Gort Garden Center introduced me to the Irish Seedsavers organization, a group that preserves heirloom varieties and sells seeds to the public. I bought several packets, but Ed cautions it’s still a little too early.

If you plant them now, they will probably get killed by a late frost, Ed warns. After all, the first week of March last year, we had a blizzard named “The Beast from the East.”

Ignoring sage advice, I went ahead and planted mizuna, mustard greens, heirloom lettuces, radishes and dill seeds in my new “polytunnel” anyway. They are starting to sprout. If they get killed by a frost, I’ll just fork over more of my hard-earned Euros to Ed for more seeds.

Looking forward to baseball season! Go Astros!

Chili, Oysters and Our Irish Cottage on Pouldoody Bay

As the fall semester begins, our Irish adventure continues. I am writing about cooking in Ireland for Taste.com and getting together with Ten Speed Press for a Chili Cookbook promotion. For 2 weeks in September, from 9/3 to 9/14, the ebook version of The Chili Cookbook will be on sale for $1.99 at all online retailers.

August is the start of autumn in Ireland. Temperatures are in the 50s and 60s and its raining a little every day. Friends and family from Texas are visiting to avoid the ungodly heat.

Come November, we will move into a cozy Irish cottage we just purchased in the charming village of New Quay. As you can see, our neighbors are cows. (That’s me in the blue shirt on the back porch, flying the drone.) The lease on our current place runs another few months, hence the delay moving in. Meanwhile we are renting the place out on Airbnb. (Search New Quay Cottage to find it.)

Village life revolves around the quay (pronounced key) which is the home of Linnane’s Lobster Bar, Burren Seafood Store and Red Bank Oyster Company as well as the berth of several fishing boats. Burrin was the original name of the town until the pier was built there in 1837. The New Quay name stuck, despite the fact that a pier built in 1837 isn’t exactly new any more. Kids come here at high tide to go pier jumping. 

Ava will attend sixth grade at New Quay school, which has 18 students, counting her. The school is well known for art and drama programs and she is excited to get started. Joe will stick with Dooris where he has lots of friends. He would be the only male in the 4th grade at New Quay school, and that makes it pretty difficult to have a good game of football, rounders, hurling, or whatever. Besides, he plays for the Kinvara Hurling team and Dooris is in Kinvara.

My penchant for oysters on the half shell will be easy to satisfy here. Our living room window overlooks Pouldoody Bay, Ireland’s most famous oyster appellation in years gone by. James Joyce mentioned “puldudy” oysters in Finnegan’s Wake. Fergal Langley maintains an oyster farm in the bay these days, I have been buying his Pouldoody gigas oysters at the market since we have lived here. Not exactly Galveston Bay virginicas, but they have their own charm.

Interesting that Galveston Bay and Galway Bay were both featured in Sex, Death & Oysters. I was in Galway for the oyster festival in 2004, a mere 14 years ago. Amazingly, the book is still in print.

Kelly loves her studio and her painting is going strong. She is scheduled to have an exhibition at the Burren College of Art Gallery in December.

And I am attempting to purchase an NCAA College Football package on my Smart TV so I can watch my beloved Longhorns this fall.

Hook ’em!

 

St. John’s Eve: An Old Irish BBQ Tradition

Looks like I got signed up to cook the barbecue at this event at Kelly’s school. I’ll be grilling Irish pork and apple sausages and serving them on buns with mustard, red cabbage and apple chutney.

St John’s Eve is an ancient Irish fire festival celebrated at sunset on June 23rd, the night before the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Read more about the old rites.