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Tune In, Drop Out, Make Sauce  
Our columnist explores America’s ongoing obsession with hot sauce.  

    July 16—  One of the great things about this country is that if you’re tired of your mundane 9-to-5 existence, you can always quit your job and start making hot sauce. This little bit of insight into America’s vast entrepreneurial possibilities comes courtesy of John Hard, a man wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt with chili peppers all over it.  

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  I RAN INTO HARD—and a dozen hot-sauce makers like him—at last week’s International Fancy Food and Confection Show, an annual trade fair for specialty-food makers, the customers who love them and the journalists who love free samples.
        Hard may not be everyone’s embodiment of the American Dream (after all, how many of us would wear a shirt like that?), but he should be. A few years ago, he grew sick of the daily grind of running a company that designs systems to put out fires in office buildings and gave it all up to indulge his passion: starting fires in people’s mouths.
        His Ohio-based company, CaJohn’s Fiery Foods, now offers more than 70 hot products. “We’ve expanded 250 percent in both of the last two years and we’re on pace to do the same [this year],” Hard said.

       For seven years, I have covered the fancy food show in search of an insight into the American Dream through its bizarre specialty foods. One year, the hottest products were chocolate bars with holograms etched onto them (“The most imaginative confections on the planet!”). Another year was The Year of the Jerky (“It will satisfy the health-conscious consumer and the jerky lover in you,” an ostrich jerky maker told me).
        This year, a group of asparagus-growers from Michigan held me in thrall for 40 minutes while they talked about about Esparrago, a new, no-fat guacamole made out of asparagus rather than fatty avocado (“Did you know that Michigan is the third-largest producer of asparagus?” Perry Dekryger of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board asked me. To be honest, I’d actually thought it was fourth).
One year, one family, one planet

       But in all my years of stuffing myself silly on samples of everything from alligator meat to zucchini pickles, one thing has stood out: There is no better indicator that the American Dream is alive than talking to our nation’s hot sauce makers.
        Sure, there are workforce dropouts producing other products, such as coffee beans (“I’m really an orthopedic surgeon,” said Joe Alban of Kona Joe coffee), breath mints (“I was a pipe welder!” said Jon Mitcheal, owner of Vermints) and potato chips (“I sold bonds in Atlanta—you know, the full range of fixed-income, bank-qualified Georgia paper,” said Jim Ehlen of Madhouse Munchies). But for hot sauce makers, being a refugee from the real world is the rule, not the exception.
        Ron Boyle ran a construction company in Tennessee, but gave it all up to start the oxymoronically named Porky’s Gourmet. Starting in his kitchen with just one hot sauce—the now-legendary Boar’s Breath Jalapeno—Boyle now has a line of 28 sauces, including Nuckin’ Futs (so hot that it features the warning, “Keep away from eyes, sensitive body parts, pets and children”).

       Alexandra Weeks was a securities broker in Dallas before she founded Terra Sol Chile Company. “I got burnt out,” she said. “A friend of mine was doing groundwater surveys in Mexico, where he met chili farmers who wanted to export chilies to America. I said, what the hell, I’ll do that.” (Talking to Weeks made me realize that we are all just one groundwater surveyor away from an entirely new career).
        Weeks said she preferred making hot sauces to brokering securities because “I get to wear loud shirts and yell a lot. It’s like a second childhood.”
        But why are all of these people making hot sauce and not hologram chocolates? For one reason, Baby Boomers seem to love hot sauce. After all, when Ernest Borgnine wanted to lend his name to a product, the result was Borgnine’s Coffee Soda (“This ain’t no soda pop! It’s brewed from real coffee!”), but when Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir decided to moonlight in specialty food, he created a line of hot chili oils (“It captures the feeling of a medicine man’s magic elixir!”).
        R.J. Samuels, another hot sauce maker, thinks the reason so many dissatisfied boomers are hitting the sauce because, well, they can. “If you’ve got $100 and a kitchen stove, you can be in the hot sauce business,” said Samuels, maker of Da Bomb: The Final Answer (a sauce that is so toxic that it was kept under lock and key at last week’s trade show, lest a small child accidentally knock it over and ignite the entire Jacob Javits Convention Center). “It’s really easy to make hot sauce,” he said.

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       And it’s really easy to market it. In fact, the most important ingredient in this recipe for the American Dream (a dream of mixed metaphors, apparently) is a 13-year-old boy’s sense of humor. That explains why bottles frequently feature naked women or why CaJohn’s offers such sauces as “Butt Twister” and “Sir Fartalot.” Sauciness sells sauce.
        “We like anything that has to do with the rear end,” said Hard, whose competition includes (and neither I, nor Dave Barry, is making this up) “ANALyze This,” “Bayou Butt Burner,” “Blazin’ Saddle,” “Cyanide DOA Sure Death,” “Hot Buns at the Beach,” “Kiss Your A— Goodbye,” “Lawyer’s Breath,” or “Toxic Waste” hot sauces. And I’m only naming a few.
        An economy that can support such a wide array of nearly identical, totally superfluous and anally fixated products can’t be in such bad shape, right Mr. Greenspan?
        Lest you believe that sexy come-ons are unnecessary to attract the most discriminating sauce gourmet, consider that Hard’s “Sir Fartalot,” a delightful mix of jalapeno, honey and tequila with a label picturing clouds of gas emerging from beneath a knight’s armor, outsells his “El’s Red Eye” sauce by a 40-1 ratio—even though both sauces are comprised of the exact same mouth-watering formula.
        “Some of this stuff gets more provocative than men’s magazines,” said Samuels. “It’s a macho thing. The implication is that if you can eat this hot sauce, you can really [satisfy] a woman.”
        Of course, not everyone wants to play along. Rob Polishook, who was a sales manager for Coach Leather before he opened Chile Today-Hot Tamale, looks down on what he called the “fart and ass” sauces.
        “With all due respect to ‘Sir Fartalot,’” said Polishook, whose company logo shirt, it must be said, was quite staid, “I’m selling a gourmet product here, not ‘Kick Your A—’ sauce.” This from the man whose company used to market a bag of spiced pretzels called “Russian Roulette” because each bag contained a single “XXX Hot Fire” nugget.
        While all the “upstarts” fight for their market share, the folks at Tabasco just love watching the fireworks. Naturally, the 133-year-old company was represented at this year’s food show and, befitting a three-digit-old company, expressed revulsion at the turn hot sauce has taken over the years.
        “It’s not about who has the hottest sauce, but which sauce has the best flavor,” said spokesman George Segura. “We age ours for three years. We don’t rush it.” (In other words, they will sell no whine before its time.)
        Segura has obviously forgotten his company’s roots. After all, Edmund McIlhenny, the founder of Tabasco, was a banker before he gave it all up to grow peppers on his Louisiana plantation—the original hot sauce dropout.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). Visit him at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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