Visitors from Ithaca enjoy the wings at last year's Buffalo Wing Festival at Coca Cola Field.
Updated: September 02, 2010, 3:19 PM
Christian Scaffo sells paintball guns for a living, but his passion is a hot sauce featuring the bhut jolokia, a pepper so fiendishly hot it would hurt less to have a paintball fired at your tongue.
For more than 15 years, the New Jersey man has been tinkering with his recipe, which includes other unusual ingredients, like bananas, maple syrup and homemade candied figs. But the fiercest is the bhut jolokia pepper, with spiciness of about 1 million Scoville units — about 20,000 times the heat of a jalapeno.
“I almost kill myself when I make it, because I have to taste it as I go,” said the former chef. “I don’t really look forward to that part. I’m a big fan of the sweet and spicy. It adds more character to the sauce. It adds more depth.”
On Saturday, Scaffo and four other homemade sauce crafters will see how their tasty visions measure up in the Amateur Creative Sauce-Off competition at the Buffalo Wing Festival, the ninth annual two-day event celebrating chicken wings with music, live entertainment and, of course, tons of wings. After making their way to Coca-Cola Field at their own expense, from as far away as Kansas City, the competitors will have 15 minutes to whip up their sauce and see if their creation reigns supreme in the stadium kitchen.
They’re competing in the creative sauce competition for amateurs. Unlike the traditional sauce contest, the creative “sauce-off” encourages the use of unexpected ingredients as competitors try to persuade judges to rethink the chicken wing. The array of new ideas for the old chicken wing speaks to the way love for the once-spurned chicken digit has permeated every corner of America.
Kelly Mockler of Madison, Wis., decided fresh cranberries — a Wisconsin crop — could offer a fresh take on wings.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a wing sauce that used cranberries, and I wanted to use a local ingredient, so why not cranberries?” she said.
Then she went through her kitchen cabinets and rounded out the sauce with garam masala, an Indian spice mixture, pomegranate molasses, cinnamon and a hint of the flavorful — but not particularly spicy — guajillo pepper.
The pomegranate molasses was inspired by muhammara, a pomegranate-walnut-red pepper spread. It turns out Middle Eastern spices “work well with cranberries,” she said. On Saturday, the judges will see if they agree.
Thailand’s red curry sauce inspired Lisa Gentile, a lawyer from Alburtis, Pa., to get involved. She’s bringing lemongrass, garlic, ginger and cumin to the mix, along with an assortment of peppers.
One of Jamie Payne’s favorite drinks is the mojito, where mint leaves are crushed with simple syrup and flavored with lime. Payne, of Port Allegany Pa., will stir fresh mint and lime zest into her sauce, with a touch of rum and a dose of honey for sweetness.
Todd Zimmer, of Kansas City, Kan., decided to doctor up his sauce by splitting the difference, in a flavorful way, between his native Western New York and current Kansas City home. His “Bufsas” features some of the familiar cayenne pepper sauce but adds molasses from the Kansas City barbecue sauce roster, plus fresh cilantro to echo its thriving Mexican community.
The resulting flavors, Zimmer wrote, will “kick your butt while they kiss your face.”
Zimmer, a member of the Clarence High School Class of 1986 who moved to Kansas City in 1997, has been cooking his wings since a short stint at Sorrentino’s. Now he’s perfecting his unique sauce and contemplating selling it.
In Kansas, as the only Buffalo guy at many gatherings, he started bringing chicken wings slathered with his evolving sauce. That’s how wings appeared at his office’s monthly birthday celebration.
“I started that right when I moved here,” said Zimmer, a graphic artist for Huhtamaki, a packaging company. “Then when I was making them, I was asked for more. That’s a lot of the inspiration to start a sauce business, from friends, and friends of friends, and people I didn’t even know.”
In New Jersey, Scaffo, who sells Venomous Designs paintball guns, has been wowing crowds too, but the homegrown bhut jolokia peppers he uses in his sauce deliver more pain than pleasure. The time he actually ate one, “I thought I was going to die,” he said.
For Scaffo, the question will be how to scale down the heat to a pleasing tickle that ecites, not incinerates, the judges’ palates. So he starts with a batch of his mother’s candied figs, expands the base with maple syrup, bananas and more. “That has very little heat,” Scaffo said of his sauce base. “From there I can escalate it to any point you want.”
Here come the peppers, a blend of cayenne, chipotle, ancho, habanero and bhut jolokia.
In the kitchen stadium, Scaffo will find out if he found the sweet spot or went too far. “Anybody can make something hot,” Scaffo said. “You got to make it taste good, too.”
Zimmer, the former Western New Yorker, understands that some people recoil at the idea of messing with the classic wing sauce. Recently, he sat next to a Buffalo guy on an airplane, and the conversation turned to wing sauce.
Zimmer told him about his concoction, and when he got to the fresh basil, “he just cringed,” Zimmer said.
“Nope,” the man told him. “There is no wing sauce except Frank’s Hot and butter.”
Zimmer kept the man’s business card.
“When I get some together I’ll send him some,” he said. “We’ll see if his opinion stays the same.”
WING FESTIVAL SCHEDULE
Hours at Coca-Cola Field, Washington and Swan streets, are noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 per day, 8 and under are free. Wings are three for $2 at vendors, using a ticket system. For information: http://www.buffalowing.com
1 p.m.: .5K Running of the Chickens
1:30 p.m.: Amateur Creative Sauce-Off
2 p.m.: Amateur Traditional Sauce-Off
3 p.m.: Buffalo Wing Eating with Joey Chestnut
4 p.m.: Yancey’s Fancy Cheesiest Couple, semifinals
5 p.m.: Amateur Wing Eating Championship
6 p.m.: Buffalo Buffet Competitive Eating Contest
7 p.m.: Buffalo Blue Cheese Bowl
8 p.m.: Concert by Eric “Badlands” Booker
12:30 p.m. Miss Buffalo Wing Pageant
2 p.m.: Baby Wing Competition
2:30 p.m.: Discover Photo Contest
3 p.m.: Dennis George, Quiz Master
3:30 p.m.: U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship
4:30 p.m.: Yancey’s Fancy Cheesiest Couple, finals
5 p.m.: Ridiculously Hot Buffalo Wing Eating Contest
5:30 p.m.: Dennis George, Quiz Master
Get sauced — at Buffalo Wing Fest