Fire in the belly: Cool times at Chicago's hot sauce expo

Photo: Jeff Greenberg (Getty Images)
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

Reading about the New York Hot Sauce Expo online conjures up one hell of an image. Now in its seventh year, the New York convention has attracted a who’s who of Scoville seekers, with hot sauce vendors from Queens to New Zealand, making the trek to the air-conditioned confines of the Brooklyn Expo Center. Put simply, it is, according to Bon Appetit, the most fun and hardcore food convention out there.

Last year, the Hot Sauce Expo decided to plant Midwest roots, and the Chi Town Hot Sauce Expo was born. This year, it took place over two days in late June, at a soccer stadium 15 miles outside downtown Chicago. As an avowed hot foods obsessive, I was eager to attend—at least that’s what I told myself, as I prepared for the event armed with my comically oversized water bottle. Even my Lyft driver found himself hyped up as I outlined my expectations.

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As we coasted towards the stadium entrance, the driver and I looked around, confused. The venue doors were locked shut. It wasn’t until we scanned the area that we found the actual convention, surrounded by a sea of pickup trucks and SUVs, held behind a chain-link fence in the middle of the stadium’s parking lot. Vendors sat beneath simple pop-up tents. A sizable festival stage sat in the back edge of the lot. A few American flags, pinned to the edges of tents, waved in the wind. There’s a reason general admission tickets only cost $7. Unlike the air-conditioned comforts of New York’s flashy gathering, Chicago’s version was more ragtag and homespun, but nevertheless a showcase of mom-and-pop hot sauce entrepreneurship.

Photo: Nina Corcoran

So what happens at a hot sauce expo? Essentially, vendors hand out small sample spoons of their hot sauces. The goal, of course, was to sell a bottle or three, and get their brands out in this very crowded field.

While there were over a dozen vendors there from places like Vermont, Florida, and Arizona, it was the local favorites that drew sizable crowds. Chicago’s beloved Soothsayer Hot Sauce, which had garnered much buzz in its four years of existence, had a steady crowd around their booth. Illinois-based Bigfat’s, whose owner began making hot sauces since the 1990s, had plenty of curious samplers. Great Lakes companies like Wisconsin’s Hellfire Hot Sauce, Ohio’s Angry Irishman, and Michigan’s HellFire Detroit—all invoking some variant of hell/demon/evil imagery—were offering flavors such as Blueberry Hell, dill pickle hot sauce, and a smokey cherry bomb chili sauce. A company from Nebraska, Volcanic Peppers, showed off hot sauces with chocolate and cranberries. Yes, the type of hot sauces offered at conventions like these are as much about shock value—how many zeroes can you hit on the Scoville scale—but also about the flavor, even if the balance is completely out of whack.

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Some local vendors, like Illinois-based Gindo’s, had been prepping for the expo for a month—and their display table was evidence of such. The husband-and-wife duo rolls out limited-edition sauces every couple of weeks, and they brought over 20 of them to the event in addition to their year-round flavors. It was the first booth I stopped at to try.

“I’ve been saving these for months, making sure we could bring them here for people to try,” said co-founder Chris Ginder. “We don’t make many of them, so we really have to be sure to set them aside so they don’t sell out online.” Yet that meticulousness quickly evolved into eagerness, with Ginder letting people sample hot sauces like citrus pale ale, garlic scape, espresso habanero, and cold-smoked bhutlah back to back. Their sauces emphasized flavor first and heat second, without the kick lingering too long after the fact. Maybe it’s because the heat wasn’t weaponized as a scare factor, but that balance was so impressive that I decided to try every sauce on their table. I wasn’t alone in doing so, either.

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This was a smart crowd, who could smell the difference between a Scotch bonnet and a Trinidad scorpion, yet there was no hint of arrogance from attendees. They were obsessives, motivated by endorphins, friendly to share their love of chili peppers and start conversations with random strangers sitting at the picnic table. You didn’t have to be the owner of an iron stomach to feel at home here. You just had to have an open sense of adventure.

That spirit extended to the entertainment as well: Judas Priest and Black Sabbath cover bands, professional wrestling in a beat-up squared circle, and of course, the chihuahua beauty pageant. A white-and-grey dog sporting a patriotic vest faced off against a brown pup donning a pink ballerina tutu and the eventual winner, a 12-year-old chihuahua engulfed in a habanero pepper costume and a collar with dangling miniature Tabasco bottles—kissing up to the jury, perhaps, but it worked.

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Photo: Nina Corcoran

The bravest souls at the hot sauce expo were those who competed in the eating challenges. Over the two days, attendees could climb onstage and compete in speed-eating competitions, racing against one another to devour hot dogs, tacos, wings, and deep-dish pizza coated in hot sauce and peppers. I volunteered, naturally, for the Slaytanic Burrito Challenge—my first time participating in a speed-eating contest. Contestants formed a line in front of a table, and the host introduced me: “The next person is… a girl!” which made me want to snatch the microphone, spit out some expletives, and then point at the male contenders, yelling: “Look at all those chickens!

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Regrettably, I did not do this, instead focusing on the burrito before me. It was bigger than expected—beef, green peppers, cheese, all overwhelmed by the chili powder that had been rolled into the tortilla—and the spice itself made my lips tingle. I ate about two-thirds of it before the winner threw his hands in the air and opened his mouth, revealing a clean tongue. He was awarded a giant bottle of tequila. Us losers got to finish our burritos offstage at our leisure.

Time seemed to stop when the Guinness Book of Records officiant entered the area. With a suitcase in tow and a folder tucked under her arm detailing official regulations, she officiated the highly anticipated Guinness Book of Records Reaper Eating Contest. Fittingly, it was sponsored by Puckerbutt Pepper Company, founded by Ed Currie, developer of the infamous Carolina Reaper which was declared the hottest pepper in the world (until he outdid himself in 2017 by making an even hotter version of the same pepper). To achieve pepper immortality, the winner must beat the previous record of eating 120 grams of the pepper in one minute to win a grand prize of $1,000 and clinch the Guinness World Record.

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But then... the weather had other ideas. In a season of nonstop rain in Chicago, few were surprised when a thunderstorm rolled in. Attendees were told the festivities would continue after a short break. Unfortunately, that never happened. People huddled under the tents until the wind began to lift them from their stakes. Attendees began clinging to the poles, trying to ground them in place, while others took signs and papers off the tables before they flew away. As lightening cracked the sky, a voice came over the loudspeakers declaring a formal evacuation, urging everyone to take shelter in their cars. No Guinness records would be broken today.

If there’s any sign of how seriously heat heads take their sauces, it’s the number of cars with headlights on in the parking lot for two hours, waiting for the storm to pass. A handful of others took shelter under the stadium archway. It was there, sitting on a bench with several strangers, that I found myself watching the rain pour down. “My friend has been training for this for a year,” a man next to me said. “Really, a year. He tried to win the reaper contest last year, but he said the capsaicin got on his hands and in his eyes. So he’s spent the past year training. He even brought goggles. I came here just to watch him.” Now his friend would have to wait another year to seek glory.

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On the other side of the parking lot was a Hampton Inn & Suites. Eventually, attendees relocated to the hotel. Somehow, of all places, a hotel with no affiliation to the hot sauce expo would house arguably the best part of the entire event.

As the Hot Sauce Expo was busy breaking down tents and dismantling a festival stage, the attendees who stuck it out in the parking lot were about to get drunk in a hotel lobby. The Booze & Infuse Cocktail Competition was delayed long enough. Bartenders and cocktail crafters had trekked out to the Hot Sauce Expo with their own personal garnishes in tow for this specific event. Tables were shoved together, chairs were pushed to the edge of the room, and bartenders began unloading their personal equipment from their cars: coolers with preferred alcohol, unique mixers, personalized dishes, and, in one case, a mini-snow globe.

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Photo: Nina Corcoran

A dozen contestants took turns crafting a unique spice-drenched drink for a trio of judges, who remained secluded around a corner in a booth. Contestants had one minute to craft the cocktail, excluding any prep work that could be done at home or in the minutes before the clock began. Onlookers cheered, counting down in unison the final 10 seconds. Everyone received a round of applause. Guests at the hotel walked out of their rooms to watch the madness unfold, unsure what was happening or where these people came from. As drinks were shuttled to the judges, each contestant made their personalized flair obvious: habanero garnishes, smoked pine needles, dehydrated mushrooms, vintage ’80s glassware, tajin seasoning. Placed beside their beverage was a small piece of paper detailing its name and ingredients. It felt like a spice-themed episode of an alcoholic version of Chopped.

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As the judges tallied votes, people continued in-depth conversations with those they had only just met moments ago—so much so that when first, second, and third place winners were announced, everyone continued to mingle long after, right until the original 6 p.m. closing time of the event. It wasn’t the outcome the convention planners hoped for, nor was it what attendees had in mind. And yet somehow, despite cancelled events and shuttered access to remote vendors, it felt unexpectedly wild, refreshingly low-key, and comically chill for such a hot event.

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About the author

Nina Corcoran

Nina Corcoran is the music editor of Boston's alt-weekly. For transparency's sake, please note that hate mail is printed and repurposed to fill cavities she acquired from binge-eating sour patch kids.