Tears of joy

I had to take a deep breath when I arrived to judge the fifth N.C. Hot Sauce Contest in Oxford, N.C. on Saturday. Ranged across the table were 33 bottles of fire and smoke. Thirty-three vials of pain and delight.

Yes, I enjoy dousing my tongue with elixirs that make others swoon. I was born this way. So were my fellow judges, Ross Ragonese, culinary instructor at Vance-Granville Community College, and Betsy Carson, a high-school teacher and food fan who was drafted to fill in for a no-show judge (chicken, cluck-cluck). Her husband, Al Carson, was a judge for the barbecue sauce category, which had about 40 entries.

You always start with the mildest and work to the hottest, and I noticed first off that even the milder sauces were pretty fiery. There also seemed to be a greater number of Asian-flavored and fruity sauces than in the past. A sauce maker I spoke to said that chicken and seafood are becoming more popular, which means a demand for lighter – but no less spicy – flavors.

There’s always a new pepper, as sauce makers search for ever more potent ways to make it hurt so good. This year’s model: the scorpion pepper, a sassy little number from Trinidad which has replaced last year’s bhut jolokia as, supposedly, the world’s hottest pepper. But mixing it with blueberries, as one sauce did – well, thank you for playing, here’s your lovely parting gift.

There are always a few sauces that leave me baffled. The one that tasted like a banana Popsicle dipped in pepper. The one where someone thought pouring in a gallon of artificial smoke flavoring was a good idea. Two that smelled so vile that the three of us couldn’t bring ourselves to touch them to our tongues. I’ll spare you Ragonese’s comparison to bathroom odors.

At about 25 sauces down, milk, water, beer and Triscuits no longer did the job of swabbing our tongues. We went for the hard stuff: whipped cream. It mopped the fire off my lips, too.

Despite the arrival of the scorpion pepper, the king of fire from last year still reigned. We selected Bailey Farms’ Bhut Jolokia sauce as the hottest. It had good flavor as well as heat. Our Critic’s Choice selection was unquestionably El Verde Sucio – The Dirty Green from Race City Sauce Works. We rattled off five or six ways that we could use the sauce, which contains poblano and hatch chiles,  right off the tops of our sizzling heads. For Most Unusual, we picked Smoking J’s Jamaican Ginger, an intriguing burst of Asian-ginger flavor.

The organizers gave each of us a goodie bag in thanks. Next year, maybe include Prilosec.

I got the fever

I am one sick sistah, but I’m not alone. Halfway through the 18 hot sauces I tasted as a judge at the N.C. Hot Sauce Contest on Saturday in Oxford, N.C., I was shaking my head and grinning. So was my fellow hot-head, Ross Ragonese, head of the  culinary arts program at Vance-Granville Community College.

IMG_1446The three judges at the other end of the table simply stared at us. They had taken the barbecue sauce judging, either because they were more sensible, or just plain chicken. Those judges were barbecue expert Bob Garner, food writer Al Carson and my friend and News & Observer food writer Andrea Weigl, who confessed that she can’t take the heat. When I said my lips were going numb and grabbed lip balm from my purse, she looked at me as if she wished she’d brought a straitjacket. But, hey, I didn’t need my lips for a few hours.

The trend of the bhut jolokia chile, also called the ghost chile, that started at last year’s contest, grew this year. Two sauces contained this world’s hottest chile (more fiery than habaneros) last year; about five used it this time. A couple of sauces used a chile that was new to me, the fatali. The fatali is an African pepper that is yellow or orange-yellow, and looks like an elongated jalapeno. It’s said to be hotter than habanero and has a mild lemon-peach flavor.

There were some wacky sauce ideas, from one spiked with the green liquor absinthe to another aged in whisky barrels. We selected GMC Bhut Sauce of Holly Springs as the Critic’s Choice for its combination of sweet flavor and heat.  Race City Sauce Works‘ 98 Octane Ghost Pepper Reserve was the selected as the hottest, containing bhut jolokias and fatalis, plus habaneros and red savinas, but it had good flavor as well. The Charlotte company also had the one judged Most Unusual, the Victory Lane Jalapeno-Sour Apple Pepper Sauce.

I can’t wait to crack open my stash. Watch out, Moose Manor party attendees.

From hot sauce to wonderland

If you can’t take the heat, stay out of Oxford, N.C. on Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The fourth annual North Carolina Hot Sauce Contest will offer sauces made in the Tar Heel State for tasting. Judges will select the hottest and best all-around sauces. Participants can vote for the People’s Choice sauce. There will be local beers and wines to put out the fire, and live music. For more information, see the web site. Last year’s contest saw the emergence of the bhut jolokia pepper (also called ghost pepper) in sauces as the hottest pepper in history. Will there be more this year? I like fire, but I do prefer some flavor with the heat.

On Sept. 14, An Alice Affair will be held at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C. to benefit the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The theme of Alice in Wonderland will include food, a silent auction, a casino and a tabletop design competition featuring area caterers. For more information and tickets, visit the food shuttle’s web site.