The Big Chil

Bikers, gourmands, 30,000 country fans, and bare boobies collide at a massive chili cook-off. Bottoms up!

The country music station Kiss first sponsored its cook-off in 1986 after someone booted the idea around in a promotional meeting, says Carole Bowen, the station's general sales manager. "Clearly no one envisioned it taking on such massive proportions," she says. "When we began, it was just a nice little event where people cooked some chili and there was some background music. It all seems very quaint now." Within two years, the crowd had outgrown the event's digs in Deerfield Beach's Quiet Waters Park and found its new home in Pembroke Pines. The country acts kept growing in stature, from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the original cook-off to Garth Brooks (1990), Willie Nelson (1994), Clint Black (1995), LeAnn Rimes (1997), and Tanya Tucker (2003), et al.

But the chiliheads have, over the years, turned their event into a spectacle. Bowen recalls a chili team about five years back that grew stubbly beards, dressed in nuns' habits, chain-smoked. and played bawdy versions of hymns on an electric organ. Another team once arrived in a double-decker bus as its booth; no less impressive was the team who dressed as the Flintstones and rode around in a working Flintstones-mobile. "The hokier, the better," Bowen says. Three years ago, before the organizers banned weapons on the grounds, one team of guys dressed in uniforms and armed themselves as Union and Confederate soldiers, event organizer Elise Lipoff says.

The cherry-toting biker Moore fondly recalls a booth by a team called the Poor Virginia Boys a few years ago that was a functional two-story saloon with a keg and a stripper pole on the upper story. Men would toss (willing) women off the top floor for Moore and a friend to catch as they stood below. The chefs also set up a funnel and tube into which they would pour suds. Moore says he took a half-gallon of cerveza down the tube from the top floor. From that height, "you've got no chance," he says. "It goes straight down your neck."

Joe Kessling and his daughter, Kellie, accept plaudits from emcee Bob Soper for having a spicy chili booth.
Deirdra Funcheon
Joe Kessling and his daughter, Kellie, accept plaudits from emcee Bob Soper for having a spicy chili booth.
Cooks such as Barbie Hull would just as soon save a horse by riding a cowboy.
Deirdra Funcheon
Cooks such as Barbie Hull would just as soon save a horse by riding a cowboy.

Real trouble among the chiliheads is rare. The bikers love and respect Lipoff, the sort of take-no-guff gal who can describe them as "dirty, loud-talking drinkers" without a hint of pejorative. At her office she has a six-page petition signed last year by perhaps 200 competitors who demanded restroom facilities separate from the stinking conga line of Port-O-Lets that the commoners sully.

Lipoff scoffs at the idea. "There's no space to put any more in without taking chili booths away," she says, adding that the contest judges, and only the judges, warrant private facilities, and that out of sheer necessity. Their guts, after all, have to contend with the gastrointestinal soccer riot incurred by sampling, between them, 78 different chilis in 2005, up from 68 just last year.

Bob Soper, the robust, rotund WFOR-TV (Channel 4) weatherman who's been emceeing the event since its inception, remembers the worst bowl he didn't eat -- back in the late '80s. "One of the chilis we had," he recalls, "was green and eating the Styrofoam. Nobody would touch it."

The hours of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. are for cooking, which involves the mixing of a few key ingredients -- generally beef, broth, pulverized peppers, and some mélange of spices -- followed by constant stirring, tasting, sniffing, sampling, mulling. This is where we find reigning champion Robert Bigge, a stocky man with a red goatee and retreating hairline, maybe a hundred yards and a world away from the merrymaking bikers.

His wife, Gina, and kids have arrived -- the 9-month-old, Jack, is in a playpen, while the 5-year-old, Ryan, directs Donkey Kong on his GameBoy screen -- and Bigge's ebullient, Star Wars-quoting accountant, Lee Weissman, is stirring the pot. "What do you think?" Bigge says, offering a taste. This is where he adjusts the flavor, pulling the heat forward in the mouth with Tabasco, pulling it over the sides of the tongue with more salt and Cajun spices. Adjacent, Gina stirs her own brew, a recipe that a few years ago placed fourth.

Their proximity here is fitting, considering that cooking brought them together. Robert Bigge enrolled at the University of Florida in 1984 and almost immediately fell hard for Gina, who was a little sister to his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. He resolved quickly that he would court her with cooking. He found an addiction to hot sauce early in life, he says, and chili was a natural. "I'm a lucky man," he says. "I've been in love with the same woman for 20 years." To this day, she gets flowers once a month, often daisies, for no apparent reason. She's a product manager for Sunbeam, and he, a bankruptcy attorney.

The savory, deep-red meat in Robert's pot tells another story, one of chili trial and chili error. When the Bigges first entered the cook-off on a lark almost a decade ago, Robert recalls, they erred on the side of fancy, with ingredients like smoked jalapeños and roasted corn. Since then, he has stripped from his chili all but the essential elements of chili-ness. "More," he says, "is less."

In all, the Bigges dropped around $200 on ingredients for this cook-off: tomato stock, cumin, garlic, salt, pepper, onions, and chili powders special-ordered from Pendery's, a Dallas spice distributor. The beef he bought from Penn Dutch, a veritable meat library in Hollywood. He uses London broil, because ground beef is inferior and loose, filet mignon can't withstand three hours of cooking, and brisket is too tough and fatty. Any grease pools he skims fastidiously. In sampling, Bigge feels for which parts of the mouth taste the food. If only the back of the tongue and throat sense the burn, he douses his pot with Tabasco, which is mostly vinegar, to pull the flavor forward.

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