AUSTIN , Texas -- Maredith Suchomel knew just what to yell to prevent passersby from, well, passing by: ``Are you man enough?"
Here at Waterloo Park, plenty thought they were indeed, and lined up to take what Suchomel wanted to dole out at a booth called Tears of Joy. Lest you think this was an S&M convention, let me clarify that what she wanted to give was heat. Fifty-pounds-of-habanero-peppers-in-one-bottle heat. ``No kids under 18, I'm sorry," she said to one group that included some youngsters. ``This would make you kids scream for 18 months straight."
It was the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, held every year for 15 years in late August, and I must have been delirious from the 100-degree heat, because I stepped right up. She asked if I wanted a ``slap." How 'bout just a tap, I responded meekly.
She gave a faux scoff, then smiled and opened the bottle, pouring a little bit into the cap and then barely touching a toothpick into the liquid. I opened my mouth like this was some kind of sadistic twist on Communion, and she barely grazed the tip of the toothpick against the center of my tongue. And right where she touched, this super-distilled, ``for entertainment purposes only" hot sauce proceeded to sear through my tongue to the bottom of my mouth, and then through that, too.
Well, not exactly, but that's about what it felt like. Thankfully, plenty of other taste buds remained intact, and even those subjected to Suchomel's torture returned to their normal state after about 20 minutes. Which was a good thing, because I and the other thousands of spectators here at the world's largest hot sauce festival had so much more to taste. There was a mild salsa roja from Two Hot Mamas, ketchup from Bloody Jalapeno, a smoked verde salsa from Sgt. Pepper, and a habanero pepper sauce from Aztexan Pepper Co., all available not just to sample but to buy and take home.
In this hotbed of Tex-Mex cooking, there were hundreds of salsas in red, green, and specialty varieties, made by amateurs, restaurants, and mostly small commercial producers (no Pace here). The DIY crowd can even buy renowned chili peppers from Hatch, N.M., roasted black right on the spot.
For anyone obsessed with spicy food, the festival presents the opportunity to experience the kinds of salsas that simply are not made in many other parts of the country, with the possible exception of New Mexico and California. And as unpleasant as it might seem, tradition supports the choice to hold this celebration of heat during the city's most unbearably sweltering month. So much spicy food comes from hot climates, one common theory holds, because eating it helps you sweat, and sweating helps reduce your body temperature.
The only problem with that idea is that nobody who has ever been to Austin in August has actually needed any help sweating. My theory is more along the lines of: What difference does it make? When you're already flushed and red and can't (legally) remove more clothing, nothing could make you any hotter, including spicy food, so you might as well immerse yourself.
Thankfully, as hot and humid as the city gets, it also knows how to keep its cool. That's why for every salsa there is a margarita, for every chili a snow cone, for every foot-burning asphalt parking lot a spring-fed pool. So a heat-seeking trip to Austin will inevitably also become a quest for moments of chill.
At the Hot Sauce Festival, they make both easy to find: Before you pass out in Waterloo Park, seek out the ``cool ties," which the Austin Chronicle (the city's alternative weekly newspaper) was selling last year for $5. These tubular cloths are filled with beads that expand when soaked in ice water. You wrap one around your neck, sigh with relief, and leave it there, the dripping, near-frozen water mixing with your sweat, until the thing warms up, usually within about an hour. Then you take it back to the booth, where it gets refreshed.
It's not as satisfying as a dip in Barton Springs or Deep Eddy, the city's best-loved pools, both icy cold. At Barton Springs, inside the expansive Zilker Park, a concrete edge on three sides gives way to a rocky ``shore" on the fourth, where those too timid to handle the 30-degree temperature change from air to water choose to ease their way in rather than jump. Trust me, it's a lot less painful to jump, and after that first jolt, you're in heaven. Fed by natural springs, the water is an average 68 degrees year-round, which is why on a summer weekend the large, sloping lawn is packed with hundreds of people of all ages. Get there early if you want enough space to lay out your towel. Get there even earlier if you want a rare patch of shade.
Shadier and more organized -- with designated lap lanes -- is Deep Eddy, with water a few degrees warmer than that at Barton Springs. With big pecan trees around, lying on the grass can be a princess-and-the-pecan experience, with the little nuggets poking a sunbather through the towel. This pool, billed as the oldest in Texas, recently lost some diseased trees, but its supporters have replanted and are embarking on an ambitious renovation of the 1930s bathhouse.
Just outside both Barton Springs and Deep Eddy awaits a cart selling Jim-Jim's Water-Ice , freezing concoctions based on the traditional Italian ices of Philly, in mango, black raspberry, guava, and other flavors.
If you're not at poolside when the urge for ice strikes, drive over to Casey's New Orleans Snowballs, where when I visited a steady stream of customers were pulling over to get huge cups of fluffy, sweet snow cones for very short cash. I went for a tamarind and passion fruit mix, a friend got spearmint and butterscotch, and her two boys ordered fireball-banana. We grabbed four little plastic chairs, the only place to sit besides the steps in front of the little shack, and within minutes our tongues had taken on unnatural colors.
The hot sauce festival wasn't until the following day, and for a few glorious minutes, I stopped sweating. I even thought I felt something akin to a breeze.
Contact Joe Yonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.