Democratic Presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton revealed what she always carries in her purse – a bottle of hot sauce. In fact, when she was first lady, she had more than 100 different varieties of hot sauce made available for her use. Of course, Hillary’s not alone in her love of the spicy condiment. We’re living in a world where concepts like global trans-culturalism have gone beyond the workplace and social circles and are now on our dinner tables. As the world is getting smaller, our palates are becoming more international and the evidence is clear; more and more people are replacing their ketchups and mustards with Srirachas and Cholulas. But if you’re looking for something more potent and powerful than the usual spicy condiments, you should attend NYC’s annual hot sauce expo.
The Fourth Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo was held on April 23rd and 24th, at the Brooklyn Expo in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This aptly named event caters to hot sauce aficionados who will travel anywhere for a dose of divine damage. The exhibition can best be described as rock/punk meets culinary arts resulting in a quaint, tear-jerking and mouthwatering atmosphere.
Ice Cream Vendor Promotes a Cool Down
Since its inception in 2013, this event has been refined to accommodate its fiery-loving attendees. For instance, during the first year, milk and ice cream stations were absent which got people running for cool relief to the nearest bodega outside the venue. Food stalls were scarce making it disconcerting for patrons who were looking to pair their new-found spicy condiments with some lunch items. But the worst of all were the privies – those god-awful stinking modern-day conveniences also known as a port-a-potty. Thankfully, all of these and more have been rectified thus making this one of the most sought-after events for thousands of tongue-searing hot sauce fans; rookies and the vets alike.
I attended “day one” of the event, knowing all too well that I would spend the next day comforting my tongue and tummy. The Brooklyn Expo Center had a bazaar like feel where over four dozen hot sauce vendors from all over the country had gathered to display hundreds of concocted spicy salsas. The booths snaked through the hall. Milk and ice cream vendors staged themselves at prime locations serving as recovery points for the gasping hot sauce junkies. Also on hand were local food and beverage vendors who showcased their hot sauce infused eats and drinks.
My friends and I have attended this festival since its existence four years ago and, as patrons, we know the process, the peppers, and the most effective pacifiers. We’ve learned to equip ourselves with Tums and drinkable yogurt and, most importantly, we’ve mastered the art of pacing ourselves systematically whereby we’re actually enjoying the taste of hot sauce rather than swigging it with a gallon of milk.
Fans with the event’s official poster
A $10 admission ticket also includes a complimentary hot sauce poster. The tastings are free, but hot sauce bottles cost between $7 – $25, and the drinks are priced around $6. The $100 VIP ticket, which includes a complimentary hot sauce bottle, a few other knickknacks, and an open bar, just seems grossly wasteful.
At this point, there is no smell or sight that will actually shock me at this event. I have eaten the Carolina Reaper aka, the world’s spiciest pepper, a title bestowed by the Guinness Book of World Records. I have participated in the spiciest brownie eating competition and sampled several ghost pepper extracts.
So, out of experience I can tell you that if you’re looking to prove your machoism, this is not the place to do it. I have seen grown men heave, hurl, and sob like babies, I’ve witnessed people seeking medical attention, or worse – rushed to the ER. The fans who come here are not calorie conscious but scoville attentive. Similar to an instrument that measures weight or temperatures, the scoville scale measures the “hotness” of a pepper. Just to give you an idea – a habanero chili is rated roughly 100,000 – 300,000 units on the scoville scale, but a Carolina Reaper has a record breaking heat level of 1.6 million units! Thankfully, the spiciest hot sauces have the most ominous sounding names so you will think twice before trying the Voodoo Prince Death Mamba or the Edible Lava.
Although the event revolves around everything there is to know about hot sauces, the founder, Steve Seabury and the other organizers have made it more than just sampling and sobbing. During the two-day event, patrons can participate in competitions such as the chicken wing eating competition or the Grimaldi’s pizza eating contest. To administer these spicy trials and painful tribulations, the host dresses in biker gear and a punk rave coat and announces the rules and countdown while the participants prepare themselves for the some of the most painful minutes of their lives. Winning these competitions is extremely tough – winners are not just judged on how many they’ve consumed, but on their ability to keep the fiery food from coming back up again.
Inside the hall
The Brooklyn Expo is the most fitting venue for such an event. This 25,000- square-foot warehouse with floor to ceiling glass windows is large enough to comfortably accommodate hundreds of fans and yet small enough for people to run into their hot sauce idols. In my case, I was fortunate to meet the greatest hot sauce savant, Ed Currie, the founder of the Carolina Reaper. When the room gets too hot, the backdoor opens to a spacious outside arena. Although no chairs are provided for the general admission attendees, people are fine with sitting on the concrete ground and to enjoy the lucent rays of the sun while trying to balance their PH levels with beers and oysters.
If you feel like you’ve missed a breath-taking event, not to worry as I can assure you that next year’s event will be an even larger and bigger piquant party. Just keep your eyes and ears open to updates which will be announced around February and in the meantime dabble around a few hot sauces because, who knows? You may discover someone has produced something even spicier than the Carolina Reaper.
Photos by Poornima Vuppuluri