Posted March 18, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Events

Chili-infused foods take center stage at weekend show

By: PETER BARNES – Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The culinary essence of the Southwest, chili-infused foods and sauces, takes center stage this weekend at the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show. The offbeat worlds of spicy condiments displayed here have tingled mouths from small New Mexican restaurants to the office of the president.

“If you can bottle this, you’ve won,” said Jim Garcia as he pulled the skin from the roasted green chili and worked the pepper’s caramelized surface with his hands. “You can just see how those colors are coming out.”

The company Garcia works for, and its almost religious devotion to southwestern food, earned El Pinto Green chili sauce the convention’s top award for spicy sauces.

What started five years ago as a few jars of hand-ladeled salsa at a restaurant here has grown into an operation that turns out 130 jars per minute and consumes 100 tons of chili each year.

Garcia said El Pinto manufactures its own equipment, has worked with a New Mexico university to identify the best strains of chili and chefs can even use GPS coordinates to locate the exact fields that supply the peppers.

The company made its way onto grocery store shelves store by store, Garcia said.

“We literally went in the back door and said ‘please, just try our product,”‘ he said.

All around him, the colorful booths of other small businesses trying to take a stab at the spicy condiment market filled the Albuquerque Convention Center on Friday. Spicy hot chocolate, habanero jam and Liberian fried peppers shared the floor with cook books and propane-fueled home chili roasters.

“There are just so many cottage industries selling these product that they are just untrackable,” said Dave DeWitt, who has organized the show for 17 years.

Some 12,000 people are expected to attend the three-day show. Open only to vendors Friday, the public will get to brave the hot stuff Saturday and Sunday.

Dewitt said it’s hard to tally sales of spicy condiments, but he estimates they total over $2 billion each year, with small companies like El Pinto holding half of the market.

Hot Shots, a hot sauce distributor from North Carolina, showed off over 1,200 sauces with names like “Nuclear Waste,” “Hillary’s Diet Sauce” and “Jacko Juice.”

“If it’s in the news, somebody comes out with a hot sauce with it,” said Mike Cates of Hot Shots.

He pulled out a $300, wax-sealed pepper extract from under a display table. Collectors seek it out because it’s thousands of times hotter than most sauces.

In the next both, the heat was significantly lower as Lisa Bateman served steamed Pedro’s Tamales. She said the traditional Mexican dish has been the best selling food item in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue for the past three years.

Across the aisle, Frog Ranch Salsa representatives handed out peppered pickle slices. In the five years since it opened, the Ohio company has thrived in the spicy-foods niche in the Midwest. It uses Hungarian peppers for its salsa in a nod to the state’s ethnic heritage.

A passion for spicy food that some people reserve for fine wine has even made its way into to the Oval Office.

“It doesn’t matter your political affiliation or how much money you give the campaign, if you feed him, you will meet him,” Garcia said of President Bush.

El Pinto owners Jim and John Thomas and their staff met the president during his 2004 campaign through New Mexico, and they’ve been supplying him with salsa ever since.

“We put 20 cases on Air Force One,” Garcia said.

National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show:

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog