I grew up with a hot sauce inferiority complex.
My Korean family had a hierarchy of hot: My mother and father could eat the mouth-flaying kimchi, with my Seoul-born brother near behind them. Then, haplessly Westernized, there was American-born me.
I'd get teased at church picnics by the aunties. They'd offer their kimchi, then retract it, teasing, "Oh, but you don't eat the hot stuff!" They'd say this while furrowing their brows and clucking their tongues at me as if they weren't sure I was authentically Korean, since I couldn't handle it spicy.
There are very few Korean dishes to which you couldn't acceptably add a dash or eight of Korean chili pepper powder (gochugaru); raw crab is served spicy hot, and stews boil fiery red. Growing up, I desperately wanted to clean my church potluck plate—if only I could take the heat.
If this is indicative at all of my family's irrational pride in eating spicy food, I have a very clear memory of a time I dared my father to eat an entire bottle of yellow Amazon peppers at a restaurant, and he did so almost casually. My jaw dropped when I ate one squeamishly—and I gained newfound respect for his brain and taste buds. I remember that he didn't even seem fazed. He just laughed across the table at me, because I had underestimated him. That was the turning point of my obsession with "how hot can you go"—he'd thrown down the gauntlet.
And so, from the first time I set foot in a hot sauce shop, I've wanted to taste every variety available. I've always had something to prove. Eventually, I started going to hot sauce tastings in New York City, where I'd spend hours sipping the hottest ones I could handle.
Nowadays, I like it all—fruit-based, chipotle, spicy barbecue sauce, Reaper. But it's not just a familial habit. I've started to get high on hot sauce. I love capsaicin-tripping on the adrenaline and fervor that shoot through me like liquid fire, even more so with concentrated hot sauces than with any Korean stew. Just one small spoonful of hot sauce with my eggs in the morning gives me an endorphin high.
Because I've been to so many hot sauce tastings, I've started to notice that the same players run, attend, judge, and compete in all the events. There are hot sauce legends.
Once a year, the NYC Hot Sauce Expo hosts an epic hot sauce tasting for the judges of its Screaming Mi Mi Awards. One table is holy—the "Extreme Heat" table—where the biggest gluttons for pain squirm, licking up scorpion pepper and Carolina Reaper sauces and wiping the sweat from their reddened cheeks. Tasters come from all walks of the food world; there are restauranteurs, food writers, media personalities, and chefs.
Tears are shed, beer is drunk, sliders are consumed, and milk and whipped cream are used like Pepto Bismol. Eventually, sauces are ranked in various categories, including habanero, jalapeño, XXX hot sauce, Louisiana-style, fruit-based, fruit-based hot, and even best label artwork.
"In truth, capsaicin is essentially poison," hot sauce addict Craig Bundy told me. "When you eat it in a concentrated way, your body reacts like you just got lit up with something you should never be around. It's like a EpiPen. Your heart rate jumps, endorphins spike like you just finished a serious work out. It's an amazing feeling. Eating hot, hot, hot peppers is like a eight minute ride. You gotta hold on."
"My whole stomach shut down. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, and I thought I should call an ambulance." - Matt Timms
Matt Timms, creator of The Brooklyn Hot Sauce Takedown, is one of the more passionate members of the tasting community. But even he's met his match. Once, at an event called The Guinness Book of Records Smoking Ed's Carolina Reaper Eating Contest (named after Puckerbutt hot sauce maker Ed Currie, who bred the Carolina Reaper), Timms nearly went to the hospital.
"I thought I was fine. Then my whole stomach shut down at my poker game after the competition," Timms said. "I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, and I thought I should call an ambulance. People thought I was an insane person or drunk from the way I was walking."
But like most addicts, Timms scaled up quickly. "Forty minutes later, I was back in my poker game and I won," he said. "Then I went home and threw up red lava." He was eating hot sauce again later that night.
On Munchies: Hot Sauce Might Have Saved This Man's Life
Not every consumer who plunks down five bucks for a bottle of tabasco on their breakfast tacos wants to go to hot sauce tastings like The Brooklyn Hot Sauce Takedown, NYC Hot Sauce Expo, The National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show, or the California Hot Sauce Expo. It takes a particular kind of masochist to love hot sauce this much.
According to a study from Penn State, "individuals who enjoy spicy foods exhibit higher sensation seeking and sensitivity to reward traits. Rather than merely showing reduced response to the irritating qualities of capsaicin as might be expected under the chronic desensitization hypothesis, these findings support the hypothesis that personality differences may drive differences in spicy food liking and intake."
In other words, hot sauce lovers feel the same pain as anyone else eating hot sauce—they just happen to like it.
The study also noted those with a taste for hot sauce are likelier to be thrill seekers. Jimi Daly, a hot sauce aficionado from Brooklyn, agrees. "People with a favorite hot sauce tend to have a favorite roller coaster," Daly said. "Sure, you could eat scrambled eggs with ketchup, but wouldn't you rather eat your eggs while riding a rocket ship to the outer-flavorsphere?"
Daly started young with Frank's Red Hot and "had to keep moving on to harder stuff to get my fix, like Tabasco and Dave's Insanity."
"I actually remember exactly where I was when I first tried hot sauce," Daly told me. "I was eight or nine at my friend's house eating chips salsa when his mom put Frank's Red Hot on the table. It blew my mind apart—my mouth was on fire but I just kept going back for more. It's funny to think about now, because Frank's is about as mild as hot sauces get, but at the time I'd never experienced anything like it. I was hooked from the start."
Like any addiction, those on the sauce have to keep getting hotter. It's this kind of commitment to heat that brings the hot sauce community together—and make no mistake, it is a community.
Deirdre Kamber-Todd and Russel Todd—a couple who call themselves "The Hottest Duo on Earth"—host competitions for the Kempton Pepper Jam, and say that it's the people that bring them back.
"Whether spicy food circuiters or the regular foodies, the community is awesome," Kamber-Todd said. " A lot of the people—the professionals, the competitors, the vendors, and the like—are regulars, and are just terrific to get to know."
The couple attends and competes in hot sauce challenges together, including a super spicy sushi competition in San Jose, California, scorpion pepper pizza in Calgary, and spicy wings in Texas and Ohio. Russ is the two-time Guinness Book winner for the Carolina Reaper challenges at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo, but Ed Currie, inventor of the Reaper, maintains that "Deirdre is actually the extreme hot sauce eater of the family. She is absolutely a beast and can eat anything I can without hesitation. I have made her cry a time or two, but she is the only one I've ever not been able to get to tap out."
"You see some folks walking around in pain, like a ghost is dragging them by their tongue. But then they keep going back for more." – Jimi Daly
One of Kamber-Todd's favorite events is Timms's Brooklyn Hot Sauce Takedown, which draws around 300 rabid hot sauce fans from the community, all chomping at the bit to try 20 to 30 competitors' hot sauces.
"The Hot Sauce Takedown was a blast and the audience is great. They get super rowdy and yell and cheer," Kamber-Todd said. "It really does improve performance when people are chanting your name."
Each competitor brings a half gallon of hot sauce to hose down the fans with (actually, to thrust at them on a nacho chip). First, second, and third places are awarded for audience and judge favorites, and glory is achieved in front of the cheering crowd to the sound of heavy metal.
"Trying ten different sauces is like playing Russian Roulette in your mouth," Daly said of the event. "Some people can just handle it better than others. You see some folks walking around in pain, like a ghost is dragging them by their tongue. But then they keep going back for more."
Communities of like-minded pepperheads gather not just at events but also at the new breed of hot sauce tasting shops, from Heat Hot Sauce Shop in Berkeley to Heatonist in Williamsburg, where dozens of new sauces can be tried every week in just a few minutes. These shops are not just emporia to purchase from, but communities to connect through and hang out with.
"There's a sense of family right off the bat due to hot sauce being a bit extreme in nature," musician and Heatonist regular Aaron Liao said. "There are locals that make their own sauce that come by Heatonist with samples."
Matt Snider, a fan of Heat Hot Sauce Shop, loves "that hot sauce that has enough of a kick that gets you going back for more." A Berkeley graduate student, Snider goes to Heat regularly to taste from the 50 or so available sauces.
"I've honestly been amazed about how eclectic the community is. We've had kids 11 or 12 years old, then older folks," Heat owner Dylan Keenen said. "The stereotype is young guys in their mid-20s, but that doesn't always hold true. A lot of times girls can handle hotter stuff than guys can, and there was recently a study on that."
The hot sauce community's strength and eclecticism can be seen in Timms's Takedown events. "These are the eaters of the underground scene, and there are all kinds of people, but they all like the really fucking hot food," Timms said. "Some people do it once and it's a pain in the ass, [but] this is my life. I'm always going to be doing this."
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