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Getting a taste of Albuquerque’s annual fiery foods show

You can try a variety of peppers at the National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show, like these red serrano peppers. Photo by New Africa/

Not my wisest move, I admit. I’m walking through exhibitor aisles at Albuquerque’s annual National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show on an empty stomach. Among the hundreds of hot sauces available to sample, I choose a bottle named The Last Dab as my first.

For the uninitiated, this superhot blend with Pepper X gained infamy on the YouTube talk show Hot Ones, where celebrities taste a drop of the scorching sauce on a chicken wing. Clocking in at a scary 2.69 million Scoville Heat Units, The Last Dab, I’m warned, means business.

What is the Scoville Scale?

In 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed a test and scale to measure the chemical compound responsible for spiciness. The higher the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU), the hotter the burn.

I plop a tiny bit on my tongue. The burn is instant, yet not a debilitating shock to my New Mexico chile–battered palette. But moments later, the Pepper X takes its diabolical root and the intensity ramps way up to sweaty, eye-watering punishment. I’m choking, kicking the floor, and wondering “Who on Earth finds this fun?” A healthy number of the roughly 20,000 show attendees per year, it turns out.

National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show exhibitors selling sauces and other spicy concoctions.

Exhibitors at the show sell everything from salsas to wing rubs. Photo by Kimberly Masker

Not everyone here comes to ignite their taste buds for bragging rights. Lining the aisles are tables laden with samples of mild-to-spicy hot sauces, salsas, dry chile seasonings, beef jerky, mustards, jams, dip and soup mixes, cookies, chocolate, popcorn, and even peanut brittle. Barbecue is big, too, with vendors selling dry rubs, sauces, smokers, and flattop grills.

As you might imagine, the show does not attract your typical wine swirl-and-sniff crowd. The atmosphere is more rock concert than cheese-nibbling soiree.

Light my fire

Dave DeWitt wearing a shirt with a hot sauce bottle print.

Dave DeWitt, founder of the National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show. Photo courtesy Dave Dewitt

Dave DeWitt—author, food historian, and so-called “Pope of Peppers”—started “The Hottest Show on Earth” in 1988 with just 47 exhibitors and 500 attendees. Word spread like wildfire among “chileheads,” as pepper fanatics are known. Now it’s said to be the nation’s largest spicy foods trade show, with 135 exhibitors from around the globe. It presents the annual Scovie Awards to spicy food purveyors in 125 categories—from wing sauces to Cajun dry rubs.

DeWitt retired in 2023 and sold the show and its production company, Sunbelt Shows, to his longtime friend and Burn Blog contributor, Mark Masker. I later email Masker to ask about his history with the show, its future, and the current nature of the hot sauce business. Specifically, why are many hot sauce makers trying to murder my taste buds for heat’s sake?

A trio of people at the Swamp Dragon hot sauce booth.

Mark Masker, president and owner of Sunbelt Shows (center), poses with the Swamp Dragon hot sauce team.

In 2010, Masker rode a curious on-ramp into the spice lane, one that sparked from his barbecue meat-smoking hobby. “I tested my pitmaster skills on a used $20 smoker, but it died soon after,” he says. “I had seen directions in a book on how to build one from a trash can. So after getting all the parts, I busted out the tools and built a smoker, then custom-painted it with a flame job.”

A journalist at the time, Masker submitted a how-to article to DeWitt, who ran it on his website. Masker soon expanded his smoked-meat horizons by entering and judging barbecue competitions and writing extensively on the subject. As for hot pepper sauces, Masker says, “I didn’t have much experience with spicy food up to that point. But when I attended my first show in 2011, I got drawn in by the variety and the enthusiasm of everyone involved. Now I grow chiles in my backyard.” 

Man in a martian costume.

Albuquerque native David Ruiz dresses up to promote New Mexican Martian Salsa. Photo by ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Moving forward, Masker has no plans to relocate the show from its home at the Sandia Resort & Casino, but he aims to better spotlight the show’s cooking demos with Albuquerque custom grill maker Disc-It. Case in point: I discover a chorizo-cooking demo on the exhibition hall’s back patio only by happy accident. It pays off, nevertheless, with samples of warm, delicious breakfast tacos.

Masker also plans to revive the College of Chile Knowledge, a seminar for those looking to launch or expand their own hot sauce business.

Back indoors, I stop by La Posta Chile Company, the recently launched bottled salsa and hot sauce offshoot business of Mesilla’s famed La Posta restaurant (since 1939). I smile at the familiar earthy taste of Hatch Valley chiles and am relieved by the break from over-the-top hot sauces. Co-owner Jerean Camuñez Hutchinson tells me that’s by design.

“We prefer taste profiles that are a little more moderate, flavor-focused, and appealing to everyday use versus the one-time ‘Try this to see if you can tolerate the heat,’ ” she says.

You may also like: Green chile treats along the Walk of Flame

Make it stop!

Joe Marcoline walking through his greenhouse of peppers.

Joe Marcoline of Taos Hum Hot Sauce surveys his pepper kingdom. Photo by Eli Ellison

At the Taos Hum Hot Sauce–Make It Stop! booth, husband-and-wife owners Joe and Loe Marcoline invite me to visit their organic chile farm northeast of Española to see firsthand how they cultivate a Chocolate Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper. It registers 2 million Scoville Heat Units and, as Dirty Harry would say, will “blow your head clean off.”

So on a sunny August morning, I drive up a bumpy dirt road that dips in and out of dry arroyos framed by fluttering cottonwoods to Taos Hum’s off-the-grid Walking Trout Farm, named for a local legend about fish walking across dry land from the Rio Grande to spawn in the farm-adjacent Rio de Truchas. At the barn, I’m met by Joe, Loe, and their excited, tail-wagging rescue dogs.

Joe is easygoing and quick with a joke, yet precise when discussing farming. This meticulousness comes from his professional career as a geohydrologic engineer.

The couple bought the property in 2010 and spent a few years growing vegetables to sell at the Taos Farmers Market. Their first batch of Taos Hum chiles yielded about 500 bottles of sauce. Today, they crank out roughly 50,000 bottles annually, hand-mixed in a Taos commercial kitchen and bottled by Albuquerque’s Apple Canyon Gourmet.

Joe attributes their rapid success to a farm-to-table approach. “We grow 100% of our peppers and make our own vinegar,” he says. “Our non-chile fruits are grown here or on our neighbor’s certified organic farm. We’re trying to make a truly local New Mexico product that’s pepper forward, not all water and vinegar and thickened with xanthan gum.”

Taos Hum Hot Sauce farm peppers.

Caribbean red and habanero peppers at the Taos Hum Hot Sauce farm. Photo by Eli Ellison

Also deserving credit is the unique microclimate of the farm, which is surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine federal land. “We’re up about 6,500 feet on the west-facing slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains,” Joe says. “But we still get air moving down the slope all night without our plants freezing, so we get a growing season extension.”

The season begins with planting in February and ends with a December harvest. As Joe talks and walks me through humid, tunnel-like greenhouses planted with rows of leafy pepper plants and shows off his hand-built chile-roasting drums (peppers are smoked with applewood), his infectious zeal has me plotting my own backyard chile garden.

Of Taos Hum’s current dozen mild-to-superhot sauces, my favorite is the Raw Green. It’s also Loe’s go-to. “I love it because it has a flash of heat up front and doesn’t change the flavor of your dish,” she says. This year, the couple is excited to debut new smoked sriracha and green apple chile sauces. I ask Joe if he’s ever heard the mythical “Taos Hum,” for which the business is named. With a laugh, he echoes the company’s tagline and says, “No, but I know how to make it stop.”

Burn, baby, burn

Val Romero.

Val Romero, “the King of BBQs,” pours samples of his sauces for festival attendees. Photo by ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

A newbie on the tonsil-torching scene, I get the impression that superhot sauces, produced solely for their “go big or go home” appeal, are simply a fad. Masker explains, “Superhots hit the industry well before the Hot Ones show, and they’ll be around long after. What I have seen trending is producers trying to balance flavor and heat while still using the hottest peppers because they know anyone can pump capsaicin into a sauce. The flavor profile is what makes or breaks a product.”

Recounting my bout with The Last Dab, I ask Masker if there’s any particular sauce at the show that’s made him cry uncle. He recalls sampling blistering Carolina Reaper, scorpion, and ghost pepper sauces at the CaJohn’s booth—on an empty stomach. “I was cool for the first 10 minutes,” he recalls. “Then the heat kicked in for real. What started as a minor abdominal heat got more intense, as if a gigantic toddler was using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight on my tummy.”

Cin Chili & Company hot sauces lined up.

Cin Chili & Company is a Houston-based purveyor of hot sauce. Photo by ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

It got worse. “The fire grew and grew. I was trying to keep my cool as I walked off the show floor. Then my body said, ‘Nah, we’re done walking. Have a seat on the floor.’ A few minutes later, Sandia’s casino security and an EMT showed up to check on me. I wasn’t in any danger. I just shouldn’t have done this before breakfast,” he laments with a laugh. 

Planning to brave superhot sauces at this year’s event? Consider yourself warned.

35th National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show

Where: Sandia Resort & Casino, Albuquerque

When: March 1-3

Admission: $15.50

Eli Ellison is a writer hiding out in the hills of Santa Fe.

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