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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

Spice up your life with 'Saucy Queen' Michele Northrup of the I Like It Hot! Festival

Northrup owns a hot sauce company and organizes the annual festival. It takes place Sept. 10-11 at the Largo Event Center.

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This week, we’re turning up the heat with Michele Northrup, better known as the Saucy Queen.

Michele owns the Intensity Academy hot sauce company and co-produces the annual I Like It Hot! Festival. The next event takes place Sept. 10-11, 2022, at the Largo Event Center.

“I’ve always added a little spice to my life,” Michele says. “I’ll eat a habanero for breakfast, like an apple.”

Michele’s foray into selling hot sauce began years ago, when she was helping in the garden at her children’s school. The vegetable of the week was carrots, so Michele combined the veggies with onions, lime and habaneros to create a carrot-flavored hot sauce for the students to drizzle onto nachos. The kids loved it and encouraged Michele to bottle the sauce, which she did.

“What started as a school project ended up as the saucy empire,” Michele says.

That empire stretches across Tampa Bay, with Intensity Academy sauces available at more than a dozen local retailers. Michele says Florida is a natural fit for hot sauce because it goes well on chicken wings, nachos and other beachy fare.

“I love flavor in general, and I think that people who like hot sauce like other strong flavors, as well like blue cheese or things that are stronger in flavor,” Michele says.

If you can’t stand the heat, not to worry. Michele says you can train your palate to tolerate more spice over time. For kids, add a few drops of hot sauce into ketchup or ranch dressing and use the mixture as a dip for chicken nuggets.

If you overdo it and wind up with a burning mouth or upset stomach, Michele recommends consuming dairy, such as drinking a glass of milk, to cool off. Same goes for cooking—if you add too much spice to a dish, stir in some sour cream or heavy cream.

But for Michele, there’s no such thing as too much heat. For her, the higher up the Scoville scale, the better.

“I even have a hot sauce holster that attaches to my pants… where my favorite hot sauce always is,” she says. So she’s always packing heat.

Dalia Colón visited Michele and her husband, Atlas Cortecero, at their home in Tampa’s Northdale neighborhood. In this conversation, Michele discusses her favorite ways to spice up a meal. Stick around for the taste test at the end.

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