If Jimmy Buffett held a concert with Ozzy Osborne as the opening act, they would attract a crowd similar to a hot sauce festival.
As I witnessed at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo last month, there were two factions battling over tastebuds: those who wish to delight, and those who wish to destroy.
It’s often easy to detect which side a vendor stands on. The guy with the Hawaiian shirt and safari hat probably serves some fruity concoction. The bearded men in cowboy hats smirking from behind their counter, decked with skulls shooting flames out of their eyes, probably want to watch you burn.
Then there are those who seem to exist in a rift between two worlds—a place we in the north refer to as “New Jersey.”
One booth was run by a smiling elderly man with a tie-dye shirt and a round hat embroidered with the words “Trout Unlimited.” Next to him was another man, this one with a black leather jacket, a white handlebar mustache, and a gun holster with a bottle of hot sauce in it.
Surely, a friendship like this could have only been forged through some strange adventure in the 1960s. But they seemed friendly enough.
It turns out the biker guy is “Hoboken Eddie,” the creator of a particularly delicious brand of hot sauce of the same name.
“Anyone can make a hot sauce,” said Edmund “Hoboken Eddie” McCarthy, yet noted that making a hot sauce that tastes good is a much larger endeavor.
McCarthy said sauces that aim for heat only are just “novelty items.” They’re the kind of things you would use to joke with friends, but not sauces you’ll put on your food because you actually enjoy them.
For McCarthy, hot sauce is personal. He grows the peppers, hickory smokes them, and bottles the sauce himself. He grabbed a bottle of his smoked chipotle sauce and poured some out into a container. It came out in a thick consistency, which he said “is because it’s sauce—not just vinegar and xantham gum.”
He gave me a taste of his Smoked Home Grown sauce. The first thing that hit me was the smoky flavor, reminiscent of a good barbecue sauce. Then came a light, sweet flavor, while the heat of the peppers slowly increased yet stopped just short of being painful. It was wonderful.
As I continued my journey around the expo, I noticed the clearer difference between the products just designed to be hot, and those designed to just taste really good.
There was one in particular that stood out. There was a row of horseradish hot sauces lined up on a table, in order of the mildest to the hottest. Being a fan of horseradish, I first tried their mild, “classic” flavor, and found it decent. Then I decided to try the second hottest they had to offer.
I quickly found myself in agony, and tried to keep a straight face and not choke as I uttered a quick “thanks” and hurried to put the fire out with some free-sample cola. It was a long, unpleasant burn that came from a sauce that tasted like vinegar. I felt let down.
But there was another horseradish sauce that renewed my hope in the strange white root. The sauce in question was “Holy Schmitt’s Homemade Horseradish.” It comes from Schmitt farm, operated by a fourth-generation farmer and his wife Ashley Schmitt.
The whole thing started when the Schmitts started making horseradish sauce as a hobby and selling it at farmers markets alongside their produce.
While she doesn’t see anything too profound about the horseradish or its traditions, Schmitt said they get “a lot of old-timers” who buy the horseradish and reminisce about how their grandparents always had jars of it around.
She assumes that maybe it was a tradition folks lost touch with when farming became less prevalent. But regardless of its mysterious past, I can personally endorse the virtues of horseradish.
This sauce looked like pure crushed horseradish in a jar. It had a flavor reminiscent of a raw bar on a summer beach. It had a strong bite that ended quickly, and a flavor that was simultaneously sweet, bitter, and sour with a bright kick that that didn’t linger any longer than I wanted.
One of the main things you’ll notice about most hot sauces not found in the average supermarket is they have horrendous names. But you can’t judge a hot sauce by its label—and nobody knows this better than Chip Hearn.
Hearn is a bit of a legend. He has created several award-winning sauces, and it’s his love of creating hot sauces that first started the whole novelty aspect.
According to Hearn, 15 years ago there weren’t many hot sauces outside the well known ones (among them Tabasco and Crystal), and when he first started making new sauces one of the big problems was getting people to actually try them.
So, one day he came up with an idea: put a funny label on it. Make people laugh. Not only did it work, but it’s now one of the common traits found on new sauces.
But for Hearn, and many other passionate folks on this strange frontier, hot sauce is about more than just flavor or heat. It’s about characters, and from the hippies to the chemists, and from the farmers to the bikers, each has his or her own bottle of sauce designed to add a bit of their experience to your meal.