Each year I typically spend months working up to a few million Scoville units’ worth of packing heat. Then the big survival test comes at ZestFest, the largest gathering of spicy foods and spicy foods aficionados of the year. Aisle after aisle of hotness purveyors offered samples at the 10th annual expo, held this past weekend at the expansive Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas. The choices were enough to satisfy any and all burning food desires. Jolokia pepper salsas: check. Habanero ketchups: check. Atomic wing sauces: check.
Scoville units are a measure of the hotness of chili peppers or anything derived from chili peppers, per a test developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. A bottle of Tabasco Green Pepper sauce rates about 600-1,200 SVU (Scoville Units). Police grade pepper spray gets the job done at 5,300,000 SVU. Then there are some of the insane pepper concoctions for sale at Zestfest, which top out at over 6,000,000 SVU.
Case in point: Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and his CaJohn’s Execution Station, where those with throats of steel lined up to worship the contents of those small and potent bottles. With the reward of a koozie and a cool CaJohn’s sticker dangling like a carrot, many tried to withstand spoonfuls of 7 progressively hotter sauces. This was no minor test of hot sauce hell…or heaven to some. Heck, there was a small army of paramedics from the Irving Fire Dept. on hand just in case. First came Oaxacan sauce (“If you think this is hot, the challenge will be very long”), followed by such zingers as Moruga Madness (featuring the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, the hottest chili pepper in existence) and some with names that shall not be printed here.
Finally, the small group of contestants that remained—now suffering from the “pepper shakes” and almost paralyzed lips, dared swallow Black Mamba, a 6,000,000 SVU extract based sauce with chocolate habaneros and vinegar, plus a bunch of venomous additives. The dazed victors quickly stumbled a few feet to buy milk to settle their abused stomachs.
Hot Line Pepper Products, based in Spring, TX, saw its four gourmet hot sauces and salsas sell briskly, according to owner Kerry Stessel. “We use only natural ingredients like fresh chiles, sea salt instead of regular salt and fresh garlic. Then we fire roast the chiles to add a sweetness that balances out the heat without using sugar or fruit.”
Stessel explained that each sauce is very versatile, especially when used in recipes. The vinegar-based consistency of Garlicky Greengo (jalapeno, roasted tomatillos and garlic hot sauce) makes it ideal for marinating foods like chicken, while the habanero/jalapeno concoction of Evil Ooze is an excellent addition to tomato-based sauces such as marinara. Stessel also has skillfully blended hatch and habanero peppers in an addictive one-of-a-kind sauce, Hatchanero. “It took two years to perfect that one,” says Stessel. “You must fire-roast hatch peppers at just the right time and temperature to get the taste right.”
Cooking demos from the likes of celebrity chefs Eddie Deen and John Bonnell of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth showed some mean prowess with barbeque and other recipes. And who could resist sampling habanero beef jerky, boudin sausage and watching demonstrations of the countertop jalapeno grill from Jalapeno Jeaven. ChiliDawg’s Foods of Fire provided a spark with fruit-infused habanero pepper spreads like Razbanero, Pinabanero—you get the idea.
Surviving Zestfest is as easy as downing an armload of milk (as well as a few beers and margaritas for good measure) and hiring a personal bodyguard to wipe major sweat off your brow at every turn. Until next year, we’ll be searching shelves and restaurants for the next explosive finds in fiery foods. And ultra Flaming Hot Cheetos do not count.