Bring on the Heat at the NC Hot Sauce Contest
Visit Oxford for a spicy good time at this year’s festivalBy Wendy Perry | Photos by Wendy Perry
With fall on our doorstep, what does that mean? It’s fall festival time! Among this year’s events is the 15th annual Hot Sauce Contest in Oxford, ready to heat things back up after sadly having to skip 2020. The town, along with Granville County, is ready to welcome back thousands of old and new friends to this sizzling street fest.
Although the event centers around a hot-pepper-eating contest, you don’t have to be a capsaicin crusader to have fun. This family-friendly Southern shindig offers city blocks of 80 or so hot sauce vendors, and dozens of food trucks and edibles for tender tongues, ice cold things to cool you down (including craft brews), a kiddie play area, artisans and more! The center-stage features musical entertainment where those who like to shake a leg can do that, too. Hosted by the town’s Parks and Rec Department, the classic car display is a festival favorite.
“We’re adding a cool gaming truck for our middle-aged youth and expect that to be a ‘hot’ attraction!” adds Downtown Development Director Mary Yount. “Also new are shuttles to provide easier to-and-from downtown.”
The festival got its start as a store event at Stovall’s Gifts & Collectibles downtown. Owner Julia Stovall Overton took an interest in hot sauce after realizing Randy Bailey’s Bailey Farms, an NC pepper grower with additional growing operations in Florida, was based right there in Oxford.
Bailey Farms is a force in Granville County, employing over 100 full-time and 75 seasonal workers, who package more than 900,000 pounds of peppers each week.
After discussions with the NC Department of Agriculture and her city council, Julia hosted the first Hot Sauce Contest in TKTK.
“There were so many people in my store — we had no idea this would happen,” Julia says. “It was decided then that this was something great for the town and something that Granville County could boast about. The town asked if I would be willing to do it again next year and move out into the street.”
She did, and the rest is history!
While festival-goers enjoy the attractions outside, judges from the Vance-Granville Community College Culinary Arts program are sequestered inside, blind-tasting all the entries to choose the best in categories for both hot sauce and barbecue sauce — as well as to crown the best overall — bestowing upon them cash awards and bragging rights!
Elijah’s Xtreme Gourmet Sauces was the overall winner in 2019, and its Reaper Hot Sauce, made in Lowell, was crowned the best in the “Hottest Hot Sauce” category. The sauce measures a whopping 350,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), a universal means of measuring heat in peppers. Jalapeño peppers are typically 2,500–8,000 SHU, to put that in perspective. The tasty sauce is a concoction of black cherries, cranberries, Kentucky bourbon and Carolina Reaper® peppers.
Another competition and test of sheer personal fortitude is the pepper eating contest. The gutsy (or crazy?) contestants line up on stage, and this year at 1 p.m. the madness will commence! Some contestants train with special diets to prepare their guts for a scorching, while others have no plan at all. “Flights” of peppers are ready to be presented to see who can be the last man or woman standing. Festival-goers mosey down to the end of Main Street by the church to cheer on their friends and watch in amazement as, one by one, peppers in ascending heat order are scarfed down, and as beads of sweat appear on the iron-bellied contestants.
Randy Bailey oversees the contest, which is sponsored by Bailey Farms. Contestants are provided only one bottle of water while fed rounds of milder peppers like long cayenne red hots (300–2,500 SHU), red Fresnos and jalapeños, progressing to serrano peppers and orange habaneros (100,000–300,000 SHU). If a tie remains after five flights, they continue with only habaneros until there is one man or woman left standing.
“They must eat the entire pepper in the allotted time to move on to the next round,” Randy explains.
The record for most rounds is 22 in 2019.
So are you up for some end-of-summer heat? Round up your pepper posse and head over to Oxford for this shindig. If you dare, jump into the contest, too.
The hottest pepper on earth?
The Carolina Reaper was bred by “Smokin’ Ed” Currie, our neighbor to the south in Fort Mill, South Carolina. At an average heat of around 1.6 million SHU, the pepper has been deemed the hottest in the world by Guinness World Records. The pepper features puckered red skin and a scorpion-like “tail,” and has a fruity, sweet taste (if molten lava can be described as fruity, that is).
NC Hot Sauce Contest
The Hub on Main
100 Main St, Oxford, NC
Saturday, September 11, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Other fun NC festivals