The Big Chil

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

Now, distinguishing between 78 cups of dead animal soaked in gravy is an exercise in hairsplitting. Probably no one under this pavilion has done it more than judge Sergei Kowalchik of Key Biscayne. During his cooking days in the '80s, he placed as high as third in the world; since he began judging in 1993, he estimates he has tasted 200 competitive chilis a year. "This is subjective as hell," says the former engineer, but he has tasting down to a science. He feels for heat in the front of the mouth, the back, and what he calls a "tang" in the cheeks (cider vinegar does it). Aroma, appearance, and aftertaste are all appraised. The biggest factor is the consistency of the meat. Has it absorbed the flavors? Has it withstood three hours of cooking? The finer beef cuts have only a brief window in which they peak -- tri-tip is in top shape for only 30 minutes before it's overcooked; New York cut, Kowalchik says, is best for just eight minutes. And it can't be too hot. "If you want hot," he says, "go to the store, get a bottle of Tabasco and drink it, because it's a helluva lot cheaper and less trouble."

A bespectacled judge wanders the grounds with a bullhorn, directing contestants to the pavilion. They crowd -- families, buddies, rivals -- onto the picnic tables. Kalar's group sits within spitting distance of emcee Soper; the biker Lambert stands with his arms crossed; the Bigges cradle their kids on their laps near the aisle. Soper unfolds a piece of yellow paper to announce the chilis that made it to the final table -- that is, top 15.

Gilligan must have cooked him some fine chili, because Soper advances several names into the list before he calls Kalar's name. For the stormy crew -- it's a loss, it's a win. Kalar grits his teeth as he smiles. Motherfuckers, he thinks. Then he sits in mild agony, hoping none of his friends beat him.

Soper moves on to the top five. Robert Bigge hears his name next: the reigning champ has finished third. His face registers a twinge of disappointment that quickly changes to acceptance. He receives his certificate, and pauses near Soper for a beat, a smile teetering on his face. Then Soper announces: "Second place goes to Better Half's Better Chili" -- that's Gina's. The winner was Fred Boehm, a state worker and fire expert from Hollywood who had twice finished third.

"AwwwRIIIGHT!" Robert yells, and as Gina brings the kids to the front, he gathers Ryan in his arms, and tosses the boy into the air. They practically dance back to their tent. "I'm so happy," Robert says.

The Gilligan's Island crew is content with a top-10 finish in chili. (The best tent top honors went to Kalar's neighbors, who outfitted their digs with stuffed ducks, snakes, buck heads, and a bobcat.) Any pain from the loss is short-lived. By 5 p.m., Kalar is passing out Jell-O shots and jawing with his buddies Davie Cash, a bull rider, and Mike Van Ryn, a Florida Panthers defenseman bored stiff with the hockey lockout. "What are you doing Tuesday?" Kalar asks Van Ryn. "How would you like to help me wax a boat?" As the millionaire skater ponders this job offer, Kalar grins like a jack-o-lantern.

Back at the Dirty White Boys' den, Lambert is in the first stages of what he will later call "a deep depression" from his loss, but he has some good news. "I finished 25th," he says, "but we couldn't even find Shawn's name on the list." With that, he has retained his trash-talking rights for another year.

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