Some like it hot. Others like it hotter. Thankfully, it’s soon time for hot pepper lovers to fire up their taste buds and count Scoville units in preparation for the 22nd Annual Chile Pepper Food Festival in Pennsylvania's Americana Region. On Sept. 8 and 9, William DeLong Memorial Park and neighboring Meadow View Farm will be lit up with people sampling a variety of sauces, salsas and sweet and savory delights infused with peppery heat from 100 vendors. All will be elevated with fiery zip from some of the hottest and most flavorful peppers on the planet.
For us, the Chile Pepper Food Festival is an outing that can’t be missed. We usually start out at the farm, whose fields are open for picking not only peppers but also an array of heirloom tomatoes, an enticing, perfect combination for those contemplating their own salsa recipes. The late summer sun always seems to amplify the beauty and intensity of the varied flavors of the peppers, with their animated, and sometimes, intimidating names, shapes and scorching sensations. The menacing Carolina Reaper, with its wrinkled red flesh and stinger-like point, will make another appearance at the festival. With an average of 1.5 million Scoville heat units, the pepper holds the crown on the Guinness Book of World Records’ list of the world’s hottest peppers.
John Bixler and Chris Markey, both veterans of the culinary industry, who dabbled in making hot sauces with peppers from Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, started the festival. “Let’s rent the park in Bowers and see what happens,” said Bixler, recalling the innocent inspiration for the festival. “Word spread pretty quickly and more and more people came out to experience the festival year after year.”
I can’t think of many places where you’ll find hot pepper peanut butter eggs, hot pepper peanut brittle, and hot pepper soft serve ice cream alongside habanero cheese, spicy cuisine from across the globe, salsas and hissing bottles of hot sauce.
The festival has grown to 100 vendors — there are 15 new ones this year — from across the country and many from Pennsylvania’s Americana Region. Upward of 10,000 people descend on Bowers for the two-day event, depending on the weather. “It’s amazing how many people will stand in the rain to get to their favorite vendors, who in turn are always astonished that people are here in rain,” Bixler said. “But it’s one-stop shopping for the people who come with their Christmas lists. There’s nowhere else to go to find this variety of hot sauces, and people load up.”
The vendors say the success of the Chile Pepper Food Festival is about people, and the people who attend say the same about the vendors noted Bixler. He credits the volunteer spirit in and around Bowers — the Lions Club, which helps with parking, the Boy Scouts from New Jerusalem, who help with trash pickup, and Maxatawny Township, which made improvements to the park for the festival’s staying power. “We clog up this little Pennsylvania Dutch town for two days. We couldn’t manage and grow without the hometown support,” Bixler said.
Even more than the fire from the peppers, the festival provides an escape from day-to-day life. “There’s a connection to the farm and to the park with the horse drawn wagon, and it’s a chance to meet really nice people and relax in the country,” Bixler said. I had to ask what it is about hot peppers that inspire people to swallow the culinary equivalent of a flaming sword. “It’s all about the dare, the one-upmanship,” Bixler said. “We’re seeing hot peppers in everything, even Heinz catsup, and there’s such a cultural diversity in Berks County and foods that traditionally are prepared with chile peppers. Hot peppers have even found their way onto Pennsylvania Dutch tables.”
Bixler said he asked Weaver if he thought he’d ever be growing and eating hot pepper “and he laughed and said no.” “It’s all fun,” said Bixler, who encourages fest goers to try out the salsa-eating contest at 2 p.m. on Friday, and the jalapeno-eating contest at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Trophies are awarded. There’s a suggested $4 donation to enter the festival, but Bixler said festival organizers realize some can’t afford it. “We want you in no matter what,” he said.