Culinary Heat: Hot Enough For Ya?

by Susan McKee on March 27, 2012

Some like it hot! Sure, summer’s temps may climb into the triple digits, but we’re talking about spicy heat — the kind of culinary POW! that makes serious eaters perspire with pleasure.  Those of us who travel “food first” always are in search of regional delights, especially when that involves hot and spicy.

Chili Heat

If you’re in search of culinary heat, chili fests should be on your radar screen. Here are four to whet your appetites (and make you wish you could be in more than one place at a time):

  • “Peppers on the Plaza” takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 9, 2012, in front of the Depot Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming (map). For $5, you can eat all the chili (red, green or salsa) you want — until it runs out!
  •  On the same day, chili fans will be gathering at the third annual Five Alarm Mountain Madness Chili Cook-Off at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, 1001 Lafayette Drive, Farmington, Pennsylvania (map).  For this International Chili Society-sanctioned cook-off, participants will compete in one of three categories: Red Chili, Chili Verde and Salsa.  (There’s a $2,000 cash prize for the first place Red Chili.)
  • The Flagstaff Chili Festival takes two days –June 9 -10, 2012, in the Arizona city’s Thorpe Park (map). Cooks from throughout the Southwest will be vying for honors in both red and green chili divisions, with both public tasting and voting.  Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 9, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 10.
  • Ground Zero for chili aficionados definitely is the International Chili Society‘s annual world championship cook-off. It takes place October 5 though 7, 2012, on Magic Island, a park on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia, alongside the Kanawha River (map). It’s the signature event of the International Chili Society, the organization that sanctions District, Regional and State Cookoffs. Cooks who win at least two District, one Regional or one State Cookoff qualify for the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff that takes place in October. The WCCC has three traditional categories: Traditional Red Chili, Chili Verde and Salsa. New this year is a “homestyle” category with NO restrictions on ingredients.

The Scoville scale is traditionally used as a measurement of the spicy heat – called piquance – of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville heat units (SHU) indicates the level of capsaicin (the chemical compound that makes peppers hot).

More Heat

As you may have guessed, chili peppers aren’t all that’s spicy out there in culinary land. Here are three more places to check out your taste for heat:

  • First up is the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival, set for April 12 through 15, 2012, in the SugArena at Acadiana Fairgrounds in New Iberia, Louisiana (map). Of course, the reason there’s a hot sauce festival in New Iberia is obvious: nearby Avery Island is the home of Tabasco! Even if you’re not headed to the fest, you can stop by the factory for a tour and a chance to browse everything Tabasco in the company’s store.
  • Horseradish packs its own special heat, and the residents of southern Illinois know that very well. The area around Collinsville grows almost 85% of the world’s supply. To see what the fuss is all about, stop by the International Horseradish Festival, which has celebrated the multi-faceted and “vastly under-utilized” horseradish since 1988. This year’s fest, June 1 through 3, 2012, takes place in Woodland Park, Collinsville, Illinois (map).
  • The Salsa Festival in Oxnard, California, celebrates the food, the music and the dance in Plaza Park (map) July 28 and 29, 2012.  There’ll be lots of spicy food (of course), but don’t miss the Salsa Tasting Tent. Local restaurants and salsa vendors will dish up dozens from mild to wild from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Photo credit:  Courtesy of the author, © 2012 by Susan McKee

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Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel.

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