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photoAnn Simmons in her commercial kitchen in Carlton, where she produces her award-winning Texas Creek hot sauces.

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Hot sauce from Carlton

Step into Ann Simmons’s commercial kitchen behind her house in Carlton and something gets caught in your throat: the airborne residue of thousands of chili peppers. Quick, where’s the dust mask? Ann normally wears one as she stirs up her Texas Creek hot sauces, barbecue sauces, fresh salsas and other eye-watering concoctions. “My husband won’t even come out here anymore,” she says ruefully.

Regionally popular since 1994, Texas Creek sauces are now scooping up national awards - two recent first-place nods from the Dallas Texas Golden Chile Awards yielded “pretty good braggin’ rights,” smiles Ann - and are helping make a name for the company on the hotbeds of online “chilihead” forums.

Last year, Ann processed more than 400 pounds of jalapeños, habaneros (most sourced from Rubio’s Produce in Brewster) and their spicier cousins into her best-selling Ghost Fire Hot Sauce and other local favorites. Those orange-labeled bottles are spicing up kitchens around the world, with Ann packing and shipping orders to Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Finland, Brazil, Australia and beyond.

Despite her unassuming manner, Ann is the mastermind behind “Pure Evil.” That’s her liquid distillation of capsaicin [cap-SAY-sin], the chemical compound that gives chili peppers their heat. Just a drop of this potion will transform the mildest-mannered food into blistering-hot fare. (Perfect for a game of pizza roulette - Google it.)

photoBehind the scenes: Ann logs many hours labeling, packing and shipping bottles of her hot sauces to customers around the world.

So caustic that it was banned as a food additive in the EU and Australia, capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray. To her knowledge, Ann is the only person to distill and market the liquid version - a weapons-grade goodie for heat-seeking gastronomes.

Not bad for a woman who grew up in a “meat and potatoes household” with a father who, to this day, refuses so much as a single grind of black pepper on his food. But Mom was nevertheless an adventurous cook, and Ann entered the restaurant business at 13. Her passion for the piquant has only grown. Back in Sedro-Woolley in the mid-90s (she and husband John moved to Carlton in ’98), she “could barely tolerate one star” at a Thai restaurant. Today, she’s likely to tell the waiter, “make it a 6, make it a 7.”

Though she encourages adventurous eating (“Try new things!”), Ann still has compassion for those with more timid taste buds. If you get ahold of something that burns too brightly, “Water doesn’t work, beer doesn’t work,” she advises. Douse the flames with dairy or sugar instead.

Meanwhile, Twisp chili challenge participants who went up against Ann’s too-hot-to-handle entry in last month’s chili cook-off can take heart. She’s already mulling over plans to enter several pots of gentler “progressive” chilis - from mild to medium to blistering - for the 2014 event.


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