Maybe you’re a chilihead — a heat-seeking extremist who ranks meals in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), dumping half a bottle of radioactively hot sauce over a single taco. If you find yourself describing your food as “hellacious” or “roid-rippin,” if your dinner frequently packs such fiery force that, in the words of one exhibitor, “You may as well take pepper spray and shoot yourself in the face,” if you know about and are hot to try a Carolina Reaper (Guinness calls it the world’s hottest pepper) you’ve probably already marked the Second Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo on your calendar.
Some folks, on the other hand, just appreciate a little kick in their Bloody Marys (or pickles or chocolate bars). Luckily, “you don’t have to be a macho idiot” or a self-proclaimed chilihead to attend the Expo, says Steve Seabury, creator and proprietor of the Expo, founder of High River Sauces, music industry veteran and author of the heavy metal musician’s cookbook, Mosh Potatoes.
Tickets are still available if you’re interested in watching from the sidelines while drinking a craft beer and sampling pleasantly piquant variations of favorite snacks, meals and drinks from more than 45 vendors like Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen and Arrogant Swine. Wherever your preferences fall on the Scoville spectrum, here are a few tips for attending the Expo:
1. Bananas are your secret weapon. Don’t show up on an empty stomach. Bananas are your best bet — “I like to eat a couple because they coat your stomach — make it come out easier,” Seabury says. He also recommends food to quench a mouth on fire. Some chiliheads swear by a lick of sugar or gulp of a cold dairy product, like a spoonful of sour cream. “Personally, I like ice cream to put out the flame,” Seabury says, because it efficiently delivers coldness, dairy and sugar all in one bite. Just stay away from the ghost pepper ice cream if you’re trying to soothe your tongue: “It definitely messes with your brain,” he says. “You bite into it and you’re like, ‘This is wrong!’”
2. Be adventurous, yet cautious. Seabury describes the sensation that chiliheads call “lighting up” — a sweaty, fire-breathing roller coaster of endorphin-laced, chili-induced pain: “It’s an adrenaline rush, like jumping out of an airplane. All your senses are enhanced. When it kicks in, you’re like, ‘Wow this awesome — make it stop. Oh wait, I’ll have more!’”
3. You could start training your tongue now. It’s possible to build a tolerance over time by adding a little spice to your food and gradually working your way up to more incendiary levels. But you definitely don’t need to light up to have a great time at the festival. Just enjoy and “Eat Responsibly,” as a sign hanging over the pepper bar will read.
Choices at the bar will range from the jalapeño, at a modest 3,500-8,000 SHUs, to the Carolina Reaper, which averages a scorching 1,569,300 SHUs and can reach 2.2 million. Feel free to test your limits; there’ll be an emergency milk bar for accidental light-ups. But don’t bother trying to impress anyone.
4. Remember: It’s all about taste. It’s not just about heat. In the world of spicy food, there’s more emphasis on nuanced flavor than ever before. “Fifteen years ago, habanero was stretching it” for the mainstream American palate, says Johnny McLaughlin, chef and owner of Heartbreaking Dawns, whose 1542 Chocolate Habanero Sauce placed second in the Habanero category at last year’s NYC Expo. Now, with Indian and Thai restaurants in nearly every town in the country, our national tolerance for heat continues to grow massively.
The NYC Expo will feature award-winning hot sauce makers such as McLaughlin, John Hard of CaJohn’s Fiery Foods (also known as the “Godfather” of hot sauce), and Terry Baron of Baron’s International Kitchen, who are just as committed to flavor as they are to flame. McLaughlin, for one, encourages customers to use his products not just as condiments, but also as ingredients in everything from marinades, to dips, to glazes. He hopes you’ll try them and say, “Wow — I can think of 50 things right now that I can totally do with this.”
Baron, whose parents are from the Caribbean and whose grandmother was Portuguese, honors those traditions by selling jerk sauce and Madeira relish that’s almost exactly the same as the stuff her family makes at home. “My co-packer says I could cut costs by using powdered onion and garlic,” she says, “but it wouldn’t taste the same. This is a family sauce — we like to pick our own garlic from the backyard.”
Even those who love to “light up” no longer need to sacrifice natural ingredients or full flavor in pursuit of a capsaicin rush. In the past, some extreme chiliheads relied on sauces laced with chemical chili extracts for their dose of Scovilles. Today a slew of new superhot peppers like the Carolina Reaper, Butch T Scorpion and Bhut Jolokia rival the blazing heat of those artificial extracts, and taste a whole lot better. “With a lot of superhot peppers, you taste the flavor first,” Seabury says. Notice the Carolina Reaper’s “sweet, floral taste,” he says, just before it wallops your mouth: “It’s definitely, like, the pepper of doom. It’s like an elephant running across the room and it just hits you full on. It hurts.”
5. Get to know your friendly neighborhood chiliheads. They put a lot of passion into what they do. More than 45 sauce makers will attend, most of them characters. Take South Carolina’s “Smokin’” Ed Currie, of Puckerbutt Pepper Company, a sauce-maker who’s also a grower famous for having bred the Carolina Reaper: “My marriage came out of peppers. I saw a girl — well, she’s a woman, excuse me. A smoking hot blonde. When I laid eyes on her I literally thought I had bad gas or a heart attack. But she wouldn’t give me the time of day, called me names like funny little man. Well, one day I overheard her telling her girlfriends that she really liked fresh salsa.” Currie decided he’d whip some up and bring it to a party where he knew she’d be. “She asked who made the salsa… and we got married, like, nine months later. She was hooked.”
Stop by the Puckerbutt booth and taste Currie’s Reaper with the man himself; he will gamely eat his own peppers all day long. “At the last Expo I sat with my crew and we ate 22 pounds of Reapers with people from New York,” he says. “It hurts every time (like eating lava) but I’m used to it by now.”
6. Get psyched. Last year’s NYC Hot Sauce Expo was New York City’s first ever spicy foods convention. It was such a rousing success that this year organizers expect 10,000 to 15,000 attendees. Events include competitions like a Bloody Mary Mixdown, a spicy knish contest, a lollipop lick-a-thon, and the Screaming Mi Mi hot sauce awards ceremony. Or come for the rock icons: Sunday, March 30th, Chris Caffery, lead guitarist of Trans Siberian Orchestra, will be signing bottles of High River Sauces, and Eddie Ojeda of Twisted Sister will sign bottles of his line of hot sauces at the Rippin Red booth.
And you won’t want to miss the Reaper Pepper Guinness Book of Records Eating Contest, where record status will be awarded to the foolhardy individual who downs the most Reapers in one minute. “I can’t wait,” Seabury says. Among a formidable international gang of competitors, “there’s this guy from Kentucky, his name is ‘The Machine,’ a.k.a. Steve Smallwood. He looks like — I dunno, like a soft-spoken dude. He says he’s practiced and he ate 17 Reapers in one minute.” Smallwood already holds the unofficial record for eating eight ghost peppers in one minute (the world record is two) but Guinness didn’t accept his video evidence.
With fiery food and stiff competition in the lineup, Seabury may already be well on the way to achieving his long-term goal for the NYC Expo: “I want to make this the biggest show of the year. I travel all over the country for hot sauce shows… all the southwestern states think they’re hot stuff. I want to show people in the whole country that we know how to rock and roll here in New York.”
Photo credit: Facebook / New York City Hot Sauce Expo