The Big Chil

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

Lambert placed third in 2002 and hasn't let Moore hear the end of it. "That has burned his ass ever since," Lambert says. But today, in truth, Lambert's chili tastes of too much tomato. Moore's stuff, which has the flavor of tortilla chips, is too intense, spice-wise, despite the semi-sweet chocolate morsels he has added to mute the burn.

At 11 a.m., the thunderous speakers at the tented pavilion near Kalar's hut blare female voices. Hearing this, Kalar, having abandoned all Skipper pretense in favor of a John Deere T-shirt, mutters as he scoops boiled shrimp from a pot on a propane burner in front of his plastic hut. "Dixie Chicks -- Dixie Cunts in my words," he says. "You don't stand on foreign soil and bad-mouth the president. I could care less if Bush drew his last breath tomorrow, but I spent eight years in the Navy. I'm a little too patriotic for that shit."

Colby Katz
The cook-off inspired Andy Young to cook chili dressed as Gilligan.
Deirdra Funcheon
The cook-off inspired Andy Young to cook chili dressed as Gilligan.

Whereas the Bigges are here to cook and cook well, and most of the Dirty White Boys are bent on pure merrymaking, Kalar falls somewhere in between. He says preparations for this event -- the bounty of liquor, the building supplies, the chili ingredients, the props around the plastic hut, the seafood he cooks to fulfill the tent's theme -- will run him about a grand. Somehow, it's a sport for him, even though he leaves the actual cooking to his friend Young, a.k.a. Gilligan. When the fire inspector comes by, Kalar tries to push Jell-O shots on him. The inspector explains that he has to be in Ocala for an arson investigation seminar at 8 the next morning. "That's plenty of time to get drunk," Kalar insists. "Help yourself, take your shirt off, and have a drink."

He was always a hellion, this one. He grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York where his parents raised him with corporal authority -- a diamond-ringed backhand that drew blood from a smart mouth, for instance. "I brought you into this world," his mother would tell him, "and I can take you out." He worked a neighbor's farm from the time he was 9, then at a grocery store and a restaurant. After high school he enlisted, did his eight years, got crossways with his commanding officer, and left Virginia for South Florida. Today he draws an income from his property management company and from washing and waxing boats. He used to ride bulls. Then he was thrown, hard. "I got pile-driven," he explains. "That's when you land, but don't bounce." The resultant nerve damage still jolts his legs into herky-jerks that wake him at night.

Kalar originally entered the cook-off four years ago for the country concert. When some young women stop by the tent, he whips out a three-ring binder that holds pictures of him with various country stars.

"Tracy Lawrence!" one of the girls blurts.

"Buddy Jewell!" says another. Further back in the book, there's a photo of the president of Honduras, an occasional poker buddy.

As Kalar beams, Young stirs a pot of brown meat simmering on a tabletop propane grill with three gnarly peppers floating on top. "It's thick," he says to Angie Fox, a.k.a. Ginger, standing beside him in a coral-pink cocktail dress. "I think it's better than last year." Young had never cooked chili before Kalar conscripted him. Now he finds himself taking it more and more seriously; today he cooks purely on the aroma, tasting his chili not once before the judges come to collect the entries. "Nobody says it's real competitive," Young says, "but it is. They joke about it, but they're serious. Especially Ralph."

Kalar offers more Jell-O shots, and flutters on, likely to tell the competitors in the nearby tents that their chilis look and/or taste like dog food. For these few hours, at least, Kalar is the king of a little universe of his own making, the ringleader, benefactor, the Skipper.

In the early afternoon, beneath the welcome shade of Corporate Pavilion 19, white-and-red Styrofoam containers line a row of picnic tables, 78 anonymous quarts of red. Somewhere in those tasty lines are Young and Kalar's mahogany Angus; Lambert's and Moore's respective crimson brews; and the Bigges' chilis, his a nice brick red, hers a cinnamon hue.

The judges, 50 men and women of sundry ages and sizes, mow slowly through them, sipping, slurping, thinking. They are dressed in bikini tops and cowboy hats and button-down dress shirts and ball caps. For about an hour, the only noticeable sound is the clink-clank-clink of plastic spoons landing in garbage cans. The judges scarcely look at one another as they scribble notes like "good" or "spicy" or "too salty," or as one male judge dubs chili #71, which is just knobby beef chunks floating in red fluid, "worst today -- worst ever."

While International Chili Society-worthy chilis have featured virtually every variety of spice, liquor, and crawling critter, there is such a thing as regulation chili, and it doesn't include fillers like rice, pasta, potatoes, or beans. Excluding beans is a matter of some debate, but the rationale is, they're a dominant flavor, and the judges want to taste spices permeating meat.

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