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Texas Hot Sauce Festival is hotter than you can imagine

September 24, 2018

John Hard, also known as CaJohn or the godfather of hot sauce, divides hot sauces into two categories. “There’s the burn-you-up spicy. And there’s the mid-range sauces that add flavor.”

There were plenty of both on display at the Texas Hot Sauce Festival held on Saturday and Sunday in the Bayou City Events Center, where over 100 vendors from as far as Omaha and San Diego gathered in Houston to show off their wares.

Take, for instance, Black Mamba Six, one of Hard’s sauces.

“Might as well spray pepper spray in your mouth,” chuckled Vic Clinco, a chef who keeps a personal collection of 8,500 hot sauces in his Phoenix living room. According to Clinco, pepper sprays used by police departments rate between 2 and 9 million Scoville heat units. Black Mamba Six has 6 million Scovilles.

Why would anyone willingly eat, let alone seek out, a sauce that can hold its own against a weapon? “Hot sauce makes you feel good,” Hard said. The pain caused by spicy foods leads the brain to release endorphins. “It brings your spirits up, like a runner’s high.”

A runner’s high without the running does sound nice, but it can be a little worrying to watch. At another booth across the festival, Jeff Popham of Houston tried a Nebraska hot sauce called Thor’s Hammer.

After downing the sample, Popham flushed, then began sweating. He wiped his face and seemed to focus inward. A minute passed.

Then he smiled and bought a bottle for later. “That is the spiciest I’ve tried,” he said.

Some people skipped the sauce and went straight for the peppers.

At the booth for Kearley Seeds and Pepper Co., based out of Pearland, there were three-foot-tall plants with names like Carolina Reaper, Thai Dragon and Apocalypse Scorpion Red. Because peppers can cross pollinate, the farm keeps each variety separate under its own mosquito net, said company owner Shawna Kearly Bynum.

If any funny business results in a pepper that doesn’t look or taste the way it’s supposed to, the farm scraps them. In a world where spiciness is sometimes viewed as a competitive sport, people like to know exactly what they’re getting.

Then there’s the other camp of hot sauce lovers, those in pursuit of mild but flavorful heat.

Carol Borge, who founded the Texas Hot Sauce Festival 18 years ago, falls into this camp. Sunday afternoon, she wore black sunglasses with red chilis decorating the frames. “I’m not a super chilihead, out to eat the hottest pepper in the world,” she said.

Instead, as a breast cancer survivor and event planner, Borge had cast about for an event she could organize to raise money for cancer research. Part of the festival’s proceeds benefit the Snowdrop Foundation, which funds research to eliminate childhood cancer and provides scholarships for pediatric cancer patients and survivors. Borge decided that a hot sauce festival would a good match for Houston, where spicy cuisines from around the world commingle.

And many of the condiments on display, which ranged from barbecue sauces to salsas, reflected Houston’s diversity. Gordon Buford, a former petroleum engineer whose backyard pepper garden in Sugarland grew into a full-time business operation, offered people samples of wasabi sauce and a spicy lemoncello. His company, Blacklick, draws inspiration both from his world travels and his family roots. His Barbadian mother-in-law’s recipe for Bajan sauce is his best-seller, and he offers a green-chile sambal (think a green-chile Sriracha) in homage of his Chinese grandfather.

Cesar Cano, a English teacher at Pasadena Memorial High School who made it to the finale of “MasterChef” last week, marveled over the flavors on display. “There are combinations that I wouldn’t have thought of, like Serrano and basil,” he said. “I didn’t know we had this festival, so it’s really cool.”

rebecca.schuetz@chron.com; twitter.com/raschuetz

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