The 24th annual Chile Pepper Food Festival, Berks County’s hottest event of the year, came to Bowers Park on Sept. 6 and 7. With a $4 suggested donation, attendees gained access to the total pepper lover experience.
The event featured 18 new vendors (although 15 are listed on the site) and 70 returning vendors selling and sampling a variety of pepper-infused products like hot sauce, salsa, jelly, balsamic vinegar, oil, popcorn and even peanut butter, to name a few. The festival also hosted a variety of music, regular food vendors, non-profits and a jalapeno eating contest.
Festival founders John Bixler and Chris Markey held the first event 24 years ago under a rented pavilion in the park unsure of its success to come. The two were not only friends but hot sauce makers alike, so they utilized the beautiful scenery to sell their products. According to Denise, John’s wife, John brought a lawn chair and magazine the first year to keep occupied in case things were slow, but as the story goes, he never needed either.
“It took on a life of its own,” John said, attributing the festival’s success to a rise in pepper-interest. “More and more people are eating hot food. You see it integrated into more things in the grocery stores.”
Denise agreed, “It’s the interest that people have with hot peppers, the fascination of all the products that you can do with them. (The Festival) just evolved, it became something extraordinary.”
The Bixlers and Markey attributed the location as another driving factor. Originally, when Markey and John were first planning the event, they took into consideration the proximity of Bowers Park to Meadow View Farm down the road, a Mennonite farm that grows a variety of produce, including hot peppers. Now, guests attending the festival can take a horse-drawn carriage ride to the farm to purchase baked goods, view farm animals and pick their own fresh produce.
Markey, a Navy veteran who has traveled across various continents including Australia, Africa, South America and Asia, developed a love for food and cooking while trying ethnic cuisines from around the world and has been making hot sauce for 30 years.
“When I made my hot sauce 30 some years ago, there was no hot sauce. Today, there’s tens of thousands… it just didn’t exist back then,” Markey said. “We were way ahead of the curve on niche farming.”
Markey also attributes its success to the unification the event inspires.
“We bring people together who you wouldn’t see mixing with each other on a daily basis but they all have one common denominator,” Markey said. “We’re all one big world [and] cooking is from the heart… this festival is from the heart.”
Several attendees exemplified the unification the festival brings as self-described ‘Chile-heads.’ According to Bella of Heat 101, a YouTube Channel with more than 3.5 thousand subscribers dedicated to reviewing all things spicy, Chile-heads are a family of individuals who love all things pepper, “All of us Chile-heads… we’re a big family so essentially coming here is a big family reunion.”
“It feels like a fair, like a county fair,” said Dark, Bella’s co-host on Heat 101.
Their friend, Jim Duffy of Refining Fire Chiles in San Diego, Calif., even flew all the way to Pennsylvania just to attend the festival.
“It’s an opportunity to come to the east coast and rendezvous with my friends from New York,” Duffy said. “Other festivals are nice and there’s a lot of great people [and] products there… [but] you got all this stuff that you don’t see at other festivals.”
Even non-Chile-heads enjoyed the festival, including Kutztown University art student Joy Fisher.
“My favorite part of the festival was getting to walk around and try a bunch of different things that I would have never tried before,” Fisher said. “I also realized I liked the location… it was something to do around KU that didn’t [promote] drinking and driving.”
The festival also hosts non-profits, such as One by One Cat Rescue, a “No Kill” cat rescue that has been providing care for cats in Berks and Lehigh for the past 25 years with entirely non-profit and volunteer run adoption centers in the Wyomissing PetSmart and the Exeter Petco. One by One has been participating in the festival for about 20 years.
Member Lynn Rosencrans said that the festival provides a great fundraiser for the organization as well as a platform for the community to ask about adoptions and cat care, both for strays and pets.
A few returning vendors include Christopher Boyd and father Bob Boyd of Cardinal Hollow Winery, which specializes in being different with a menu that includes honey-based whiskey mead, 100 percent fruit wines with no grapes, jalapeno wine and 100 percent agave wine that tastes and smells just like tequila.
“I like to make stuff that nobody else makes. You can go to the state store and find merlot all day long for $8 a bottle… I like to bring different things to people,” Chris said.
The honey-based whiskey mead sampled at the festival is unsurprisingly their No. 1 best seller. The sweet yet pungent concoction lists honey fermented in old whiskey barrels as one of its main ingredients. The mead gained 89 points at the 2017 International Mead Competition.
Sherry Laity of Sherry’s Hodge Podge LLC (found at Fisher’s Produce in Oley, Cindy’s Flowering Cupboard at the Fairgrounds Farmers Market in Reading, Made in PGA in Pine Grove and Kushy Boutique in Walnutport, as well as at Lyons Fiddle Festival Sept. 15 and the Berks Wine Festival Oct. 5) features things for all different kinds of foodies such as mustard, jelly and pickles. Although she admittedly prepares more hot products for the festival, such as her Carolina Reaper pickles, she also does well with her mild and non-spicy things such as her enchantingly blue ‘Happily Ever After’ jelly and dill pickles.
“Even people who don’t like hot stuff have a good time,” Laity said. “There are people that… come to me every year here.”