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OXFORD — Mid-September is traditionally a warm time in Oxford but is an apt time for an outdoor festival celebrating the food that can literally bring tears to your eyes.
The 13th Annual North Carolina Hot Sauce Contest saw crowds pack into historic downtown Oxford on Saturday, waiting to put their taste buds through the wringer with good food and seemingly endless varieties of hot sauces.
The highlight of each year’s festival is the chili pepper eating contest sponsored by Bailey Farms of Oxford, which specializes in growing chili peppers. A row of contestants had 30 seconds per round to eat a pepper of varying heat to its tip, from jalapeños to the dreaded Carolina Reaper, which scores an average of 1.5 million on the Scoville scale. Each contestant had one bottle of water to cool their mouths with.
The 2018 contest winner Ken Knutsen, of Raleigh, was defeated in the 15th round by Sam Hartford of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina after failing to devour a jalapeño in the 30 seconds allotted. Hartford received a trophy and $1,000, while Knutsen received $300 for second place.
“I eat spicy foods all the time,” Hartford said after the festival. “And I’ve been competing for three years going to places like here in Oxford or as far as Portland, Oregon with their festival.”
Other than the spicy food in his everyday diet, Hartford declined to give away secrets to his preparation for such contests other than not drinking bottled water given to contestants.
“The bottled water makes the burning worse and it takes up space in your stomach that you need for the peppers,” he said.
Of course, the other highlight was the actual hot sauce contest, which was divided into categories of Mild Hot, Verde Hot, Hottest Hot, Mustard Base, Vinegar Base, Tomato Base and Mild Barbecue.
Elijah’s Xtreme Gourmet Sauces was the overall winner while also winning first place for hottest hot sauce with their Reaper sauce and second place for mild barbecue.