Burn, Baby, Burn

I'm still at a loss as to why Mexico's Cinco de Mayo is such a big deal in the U.S. when it's not a big deal in Mexico.

Most people I've polled labor under the illusion that the fifth of May is Mexican Independence Day. If you think that, you get a big fat F in Mexican history.

A classic case of a slickly commercialized excuse to party hardy -- probably bolstered by the marketing folks at Jose Cuervo and Tecate beer -- Cinco de Mayo is the date in 1862 on which a ragtag army of Mexican mestizos and Zapotec Indians ousted their French occupiers in the Battle of Puebla. Sorry, but Mexican Independence Day happened nearly 50 years prior to that on September 16, 1810.

In any event, Cinco de Mayo is the day the Valley of the Sun magically turns into the Valley of la Salsa, not to mention the most convenient date around which to plan extravagant Mexican-food-related fund-raising events.

Like the Hemophilia Salsa Festival at Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday. At least, that's how it was pitched to me, though, in actuality, it was the 16th annual Xerox Southwest Salsa Challenge. Festival proceeds go toward sending kids with hemophilia to summer camp, a worthy enough cause for me to risk acute indigestion and permanently altered taste buds by being one of 15 salsa judges at the festival.

It was that or cover a Cinco de Mayo tug of war over a large vat of refried beans at Aunt Chilada's at Pointe Hilton on South Mountain, rumored to be a refrito fund raiser for St. Mary's Food Bank.

Preferring to eat my food rather than possibly wear it, I dutifully showed up on schedule at the stadium's press box, joining the judging ranks with executive chef Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's and Barmouche, chef Jaeger Griffin from Eddie Matney's Epicurean Trio and Patrick Poblete of Lon's at the Hermosa.

All of them were strangely enthusiastic about the prospect of spooning sample after salsa sample into their mouths for an entire afternoon. Most of the professional chefs in the crowd, uniformed in white chef's jackets, stood out from us civilians like chile-seared tongues (including ex-Phoenix city councilman Sal DiCiccio, news weatherman Sean McLaughlin and Chili Appreciation Society of Arizona member Ken Holmes).

An understated spread of fresh fruits, vegetable crudités, sandwiches, beer and bottled water awaited us in the press room, along with a cactus-stemmed margarita glass brimming with Tums. Mad Coyote Joe, host of TV's "Sonoran Grill," had been designated head judge. He ran the double-blind judging like a cross between a rotund Marine drill sergeant and Santa Claus, barking rules and regulations with cheerful but no-nonsense zeal.

Salsas were divided into three entrant categories, he intoned -- individual, business and restaurant -- with mild and hot subdivisions in each category. The festival's Grand Champion Award, according to our chief justice, was to be based on the salsa "you'd most want to have with you if stuck forever on some deserted island."

Entrants -- whom Mad Coyote made clear were extremely serious about this event -- had been required to make seven gallons of fresh salsa on the stadium grounds that morning. (The official written rules for salsa cooks rather ominously required that "if you are roasting or cooking in your area, you MUST have a fire extinguisher.") Some of it would be dished out for the official judging panel. The rest was to be made available in the entrants' booths for taste-testing by festivalgoers, who would vote for the "People's Choice" award.

We were to keep in mind that we were judging tomato-based, chunky relish-style salsa, "not taco sauce, hot sauce, enchilada sauce, chile sauce, chow-chow relish, guacamole, mole or green chili." Tomatillo-based salsas and fruit salsas were banned from the competition as well. We had to consider aroma, consistency, appropriate heat level, color, taste and aftertaste. We also had to scour the salsa-themed booths on the field and vote for Best of Show and Best Booth. If we so much as smelled a tortilla chip at close range in any booth, no matter how expertly enticed or seduced by booth sitters, we'd be busted and disqualified from judging.

No voting on salsas in the business or restaurant categories if you were in any way affiliated with one in the contest. No double-dipping. No talking among judges about any salsa in any way, shape or form. No eye rolling. No facial grimaces. No disgusted noises or groans of pleasure. If we wrote comments, we were to try to be constructive. For example, write, "salt level needs adjusting," not "this tastes like dog crap."

Festooned with red judges' ribbons, we were then loosed upon the crowd for booth judging before the much-anticipated climax of sequestered salsa tasting. An obvious retro theme pervaded this year's contenders for most entertaining and best decorated booths. I was drawn to Gentiva Health Services Infusion Therapy's glittery "Saturday Afternoon Fever" presentation, the ultimate Best of Show winner. In front of its blindingly silver booth, eyed suspiciously by blue-haired, nose-pierced 17-year-olds, a number of pillars of the community decked out in multicolored Afro wigs and leisure suits writhed and hustled, gripped by disco madness inspired by Village People songs being blasted from a nearby loudspeaker.

Not to be outdone, a neighboring booth created by the Arizona Parrot Head Club (a group dedicated to unabashed carousing while simultaneously raising funds for charities like the Hemophilia Association and Brewster Center Domestic Violence Services) went all out with a tropical tiki theme, copping the Best Booth award. Guys in hula skirts and coconut-shell bras "leied" onlookers, while a female Parrot Head dressed as a giant flip-flop wandered among them as a band onstage did a bad cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Higher."

Lurching back to the press box to the hypnotic, highly un-Mexican chant of "boom shakalakalaka, boom shakalakalaka," I eventually joined the other judges for the salsa showdown.

It's a good thing that profuse sweating and facial flushing were not outlawed, or most of us would have been disqualified within three minutes of digging into the hotter salsas. I spotted a purple-faced Sean McLaughlin sniffing a spoonful of one entry, unable to completely conceal the fact that he was totally entranced by its aroma. While Mark Tarbell mopped rivulets of sweat from his neck and face, he divulged that his mother was coming from back East with his favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, which he plans on adding to Barmouche's menu in the near future (note safe food conversation unrelated to salsa judging).

Ken Holmes, a hardened veteran of many state chili-tasting wars, anxiously bounced back and forth from cup to cup, the rhythm of his repeated dippings broken only when he reached for more tortilla chips or made notes. Sal DiCiccio came up to me after he finished judging, tears uncontrollably welling up in his eyes, and quietly confided, "And I'm really used to hot salsa." I embarrassed myself by having to blow my dripping nose throughout the judging, though I have to say that my sinuses have never felt better this allergy season.

A sucker for the sensual smokiness of chipotle, I gave my highest marks to any salsa that used it. The Grand Champion of the festival eventually was chosen from four finalists in a one-two-three, paper-scissors-rock-like pointing ritual. The chipotle-laced salsa of Garcia's Restaurant emerged victorious.

There are only a few suggestions I'd offer for next year's festival, in which, hopefully, I'll be invited to participate again. I'd make sure to have sour cream available as a palate cleanser, lay in a generous supply of Kleenex, switch out the regular Tums for the extra-strength kind and bring on some margaritas.

Contact Kathleen Vanesian at her online address: [email protected]

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Kathleen Vanesian