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25 Years of Hot Sauce!

Hard to believe I have been at the helm of the big hot sauce contest in Austin for a quarter century. I have never missed a year. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. logo-2015

Check out what Austin Chronicle Editor, Louis Black had to say about the event 5 years ago, when it turned 20:

Festival Welcome and 20-Year Retrospective

The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival has had a considerable affect on the culinary culture of Austin and the state of Texas. It has shaped careers, created business opportunities, promoted restaurants, inspired food art, and enhanced Austin’s reputation as a city with an active food scene, all the while generating thousands of pounds of food for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.

Twenty years ago, American regional cuisines were not a hot topic of nationwide conversation, Austin wasn’t even a blip on the national culinary radar, and hot sauce had yet to replace ketchup as America’s condiment of choice. But it was an emblematic component of any authentic Tex-Mex meal. Cities across Texas were (and still are) justifiably proud of their hometown restaurants’ representations of an authentic American regional cuisine. No two cities were prouder or more renowned for their Mexican restaurants than Austin and San Antonio. In 1991, Austin Chronicle Food Editor Robb Walsh challenged San Antonio to a hot sauce cook-off competition in a festival setting at the Travis County Farmers’ Market. Austin was ultimately declared the winner, and that event grew into the party thousands will enjoy this Sunday.

Robb Walsh’s fascination with chile peppers and Tex-Mex food grew exponentially. This led him to a stint as editor of Chile Pepper magazine, provided source material for several books on different aspects of Tex-Mex cuisine, and established him as a regional foods authority. Although now based in Houston, Walsh invites a group of celebrity chefs to help him judge the contest in Austin every August. Festival organizer Elizabeth Derczo helped create the original festival as an employee of the Chronicle’s marketing department. Her yearly success at putting on the festival would eventually become one of the building blocks of her own event production company, Austintatious Events. In addition to putting on a successful hot sauce festival every year, Derczo is also the official institutional memory of the event, and we have her to thank for the historical timeline featured in this supplement.

As noted in this week’s “Bringing the Heat,” several local people have parlayed their participation in the annual festival into careers as bottlers of their own brands of hot sauce. Austin now actively supports a thriving cottage industry of artisan condiment producers, and some of those companies use the festival as a proving ground for new additions to their product lines. Winning or placing in the hot sauce contest is a point of pride for area restaurants, as well. The homegrown Trudy’s chain, famous for homestyle Southern cooking and Tex-Mex specialties, had a mortal lock on the restaurant category for years until it retired to the Hall of Flame (see the list). Small independent restaurants such as Curra’s Grill, Iguana Grill, El Caribe, Sazón, and the sorely missed Evita’s Botanitas used contest appearances to broaden their customer base and wins to enhance their marketing plans. The yearly festival T-shirts have become collectors’ items, valued as much for their whimsical food art as for mementos of a great party. The exquisite Renaissance Glass-designed plaques awarded to the winners are prized for both their beauty and status. The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival was one of the first local food events to attract production crews from the Food Network and the Travel Channel to the Texas capital. Austin being featured in segments on both those networks helped focus a spotlight on our evolving culinary scene; these days, we’re unlikely to go a month without some Central Texas chef, restaurant, barbecue joint, artisan food producer, or food trailer showing up in the national media.

As you can tell, we’re extremely proud of this annual party, and we couldn’t be happier that you’re here to participate in our ongoing cultural phenomenon. We encourage you to enjoy the music, eat plenty of hot sauce, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate to survive in the sun!

1 comment to 25 Years of Hot Sauce!

  • jim sherman

    A neighbor offered me soup-and-sandwich the other day and produced a bottle of the new (to me, at least) Tabasco Sriachi. I think I still prefer the original Rooster brand but more research is needed….