In a huge, bustling conference space, people mill about with beads of sweat forming on their upper lips and tears streaming down their cheeks. No, they're not upset – they're merely experiencing the euphoric pain of the second annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo.
The two-day event at Penn Plaza Pavilion this weekend saw the country's best and most popular hot sauce producers gather together to offer up tastes of their spiciest fare.
From tears-inducing ghost pepper sauce to ice cream infused with jalapeño, I gamely pushed my taste buds to the limit – all in the name of research, of course.
Forty-five vendors traveled from across the country to put their hot sauces on display at the event, with tortilla chips or tiny spoons for the hundreds of attendees to try them with.
One of the vendors was Grinders, a company based in Kansas City, Missouri, with a bustling crowd of hot sauce aficionados keen to try its fiery sauces.
The most daring among them went for Death Nectar – a concoction whose ingredients include ghost peppers, widely considered one of the top three spiciest peppers in the world.
Indeed, the sauce boasts an impressive 337,000 Scoville units – the scale from 0 to 16million that measures the 'hotness' of a sauce.
For reference, U.S. grade police pepper spray is rated at between 2.5million and 5.3million on the Scoville scale, and Death Nectar is about 30 times spicier than the jalapeño pepper, which comes in at 2,500 to 10,000.
New Jersey native Jaime Delia, 28, couldn't help but tear up when his lips started burning after tasting just a drop of the fiery sauce.
'I lost total control over my eyeballs,' he said of the experience. 'That was a doozy.'
And 23-year-old hot sauce lover Sasha Yanes, who normally has a 'very high tolerance' for spice, also succumbed to tears.
'It felt like I was dying,' she said. 'It's funny because it didn't hurt initially, but the heat definitely built up.'
Of course, Grinders owner Stretch – who is also a sculptor by trade – is fiercely protective when it comes to what, apart from ghost peppers, is actually in his hottest sauce.
'It has ghost pepper, ghost pepper extract, pineapple, squid ink and espresso,' he jokes when I ask, clearly unwilling to give up the real recipe.
While Grinders prides itself on near-painful heat, other hot sauceries at the Expo place more emphasis on where they get their ingredients.
Homesweet Homegrown, for instance, which is based in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, has 100per cent vegan ingredients – including chia seed as a thickener – and is made with heirloom peppers from founder Robyn Jasko's own farm.
Ms Jasko, who wrote a book called Homesweet Homegrown about how to grow your own food in any setting, jokes that she got into the hot sauce business 'very organically'.
'Before I left on a book tour in 2012, [my husband Paul and I] planted way too many peppers,' she explained. 'When I returned, I had hundreds of peppers and thought it would be fun to sell hot sauce at my book signings.'
Now, her homegrown, all-vegan condiments have attracted the attention of Williams Sonoma, Zagat and the Today show, and starting in May, they're set to be sold in Whole Foods stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
At the Homesweet Homegrown Hot Sauce Expo booth, she hands out grow-your-own ghost peppers in little plastic boxes, and attendees scramble to get their hands on her quickly dwindling supply of sauces.
Triumphant: The champion shows off his trophy and certificate, grinning through the tears
'I do think it was all meant to be though,' she said of her inevitable venture into the hot sauce industry, 'because when I was a kid, my nickname was Tabasco Jasko!'
'It felt like I was dying. It didn't hurt initially, but the heat definitely built up'
Some of the hot sauces at the Expo are more experimental than others – like at Bonfatto's booth, where they're doling out Spice Cream, a risky-sounding mixture of homemade ice cream and wing sauce.
The Bellefonte, Pennsylvania-based company's creamy dessert flavors include Jumping Jack Apple Flash – vanilla ice cream infused with apple pepper jack sauce and pecans – Sweet Peachy Heat Wave – vanilla with 'peaches n' scream' sauce and granola – and Rolling Berry Blastoff – vanilla with Razz Hab sauce and peanut butter cups.
Award-winning: Owner Merle, who rocks long brown hair and a Hell's Angels-style dragon necklace, proudly showed off a trophy Hellfire won at last year's Expo for a fruit-based sauce called Devil's Gold
And over at Hellfire Hot Sauce, which produces its artisan sauces out of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, spicy elixirs are on display in ghoulish skull-shaped bottles that are collectibles on their website.
Here, the theme is rock and roll, with sauces that have fearsome monikers like Devil's Revenge, Pure Hell and Evil Bastard.
Owner Merle, who rocks long brown hair and a Hell's Angels-style dragon necklace, proudly shows off a trophy the business won at last year's Expo for a fruit-based sauce called Devil's Gold.
Indeed, an important part of the yearly event is the competitions and awards – like the Screaming Mi Mi Awards, given to hot sauces in various categories including fruit-based, all-natural, chipotle, Louisiana style and best label artwork.
And every hour, crowds gather in front of a stage in the main room to watch hot sauce enthusiasts test their palates to the extreme with spicy pizza, taco and wings eating challenges, all of which end in (happy) tears.
In the spirit of hot sauce, some of the attendees dressed up, like one man who came in a chili pepper onesie and another who wore a chicken hat on his head.
'My mouth was on fire for hours, but the pain was a small price to pay for such an experience'
Others got into heated kerfuffles about which pepper is the best and spiciest of them all.
And despite all the tingling lips, numb tongues and unavoidable tears, expo-goers all seemed to agree that they got exactly what they came for.
'My mouth was on fire for hours after I left,' said attendee Guy Merin, 28. 'But the pain was a small price to pay for such an experience.'
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