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.