Connecting the community through spice

Chilifest brings hot pepper connoisseurs to Sunderland

By MAX MARCUS, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 16, 2019

SUNDERLAND — Probably nowhere but at Chilifest can you taste hot peppers in beer, kombucha, ice cream and even snow cones.

“Everybody connects to them in a different way,” said Caroline Pam, whose Kitchen Garden Farm organizes the annual Chilifest, held on Saturday and Sunday. The weekend-long festival has been held at Mike’s Maze, a corn maze in Sunderland, since 2014, and for two years before that was at a farm in Hadley, Pam said.

Kitchen Garden Farm started the festival in 2012 to promote its hot peppers, Pam said. Most attendees that year were members of the community- supported agriculture (CSA) program that Kitchen Garden had at the time, she said.

The second year, Kitchen Garden Farm started selling its own hot sauce, Pam said, and they sold their entire stock that weekend.

The festival has since moved to Mike’s Maze because it is closer to Kitchen Garden Farm and more accessible for visitors, said Tim Wilcox, Pam’s husband and co-owner of Kitchen Garden Farm.

“The idea of the festival is to bring together people who are really into hot food,” Wilcox said. The festival also coincides loosely with the early September opening of Mike’s Maze, he added.

Among the people who are really into hot food are about 20 vendors, including local beer brewers who make special hot pepper-flavored batches for the festival and hot sauce companies offering samples of their products. The festival also has a hot sauce competition, featuring sauces by amateur sauciers, Pam said.

Kitchen Garden Farm itself had about 70 types of hot peppers available, which Wilcox said probably represents the largest selection of hot peppers in New England. He recommended tasting them only a few at a time, with breaks between “heats.”

Most of the hot sauce companies come from Massachusetts or New England. Brian Ruhlman, a Lowell hot sauce maker, has been selling through his company Craic Sauce (pronounced like “crack sauce”; it’s Irish, Ruhlman said) since 2017. He buys peppers from Kitchen Garden, and also incorporates vegetables and fruits for flavor.

“I like to experiment and try different things,” Ruhlman said. “Hot sauce is pretty forgiving.”

Fraktured, a hot sauce company from the Philadelphia area, came farther than most other vendors. Fraktured grows most of its own ingredients through its farm, said Fiona Palumbo, one of the farmers. They connected with Kitchen Garden as fellow hot sauce makers, she said.

“We follow other farms for inspiration and information,” Polumbo said. “These guys definitely stand out for having their act together.”

That’s not unusual in the world of hot sauce, Pam said. Chilifest had a “hot sauce nerd convention” late Sunday afternoon, where amateur and professional sauciers shared tips and tricks of the trade, she said.

“Hot sauce is a community that’s tight,” Pam said. Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@ or 413-7720261, ext. 261.