The Big Chil

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

Andy Young won the prize for being the first awake: At 2:30 a.m. the perennial chili cook-off competitor, nervous and unable to sleep, arose to download the theme song to Gilligan's Islandand burn it onto a CD. Next up was Ralph Kalar, a wiry hardass who took his first Jell-O shot before dawn, then rounded up his parents, Young, and three other friends, and headed off to C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines.

They arrived before 6 a.m. this cool Sunday morning in January and began erecting a hut like one from the '60's sitcom. Sort of. They fused 10-foot-long PVC pipes, 18 of them, into a frame meant to recall a bamboo shelter and swathed it in 20 flowery plastic hula skirts stapled end-to-end.

By 8:30 a.m., a couple of tiki torches were burning in front of the tent; inside was a framed assortment of gnarly harpoon tips that Kalar said "an ancient mariner" once gave him. A tent shaded a hammock, where fatigued cooks would later catch some Z's. Young -- tall, boyish, and outfitted in a doofy white Gilligan hat and red sweater -- walked toward the hammock, yawning. Ralph's mother, Joyce, cast as the aristocratic Mrs. Howell, sat inside the hut wearing slinky white dowager's gloves, her bug-eyed Boston terrier pup keeping her company.

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.
Shawn Moore water-gunned down passing teenage girls
Deirdra Funcheon
Shawn Moore water-gunned down passing teenage girls
Buxom early-arriving country fans to sprint to the concert stage.
Deirdra Funcheon
Buxom early-arriving country fans to sprint to the concert stage.
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.
Young, Angie Fox, and Kalar basked in their hard-won certificate.
Deirdra Funcheon
Young, Angie Fox, and Kalar basked in their hard-won certificate.
Robert Bigge added further hardware to his trophy pile.
Colby Katz
Robert Bigge added further hardware to his trophy pile.

There were problems: Kalar could never find a proper Skipper hat for himself, so he settled for a ball cap. And "we still can't find that radio," he kvetched. He meant the dinky white radio that managed, somehow, to survive shipwreck and three seasons on the island.

Such details could mean the difference between taking home trophies and merely getting stuffed, sunburned, and passed-out drunk. At the 20th annual Chili Cook-off here at C.B. Smith, prizes go to the best chili and the coolest booth. Which is why, among the seven coolers packed with 2,000 or so Jell-O shots, 30 pounds of crab claws, 20 pounds of shrimp, 400 clams, two lobsters, two 12-pound pork shoulders, hamburgers, bacon, potatoes, eggs, bagels, and untold quantities of beer, Kalar's gang also had the makings for chili. They hoped their concoction would surpass the other 77 pots cooked there and qualify for a spot at the world championships in Las Vegas.

"You have to tell yourself, 'I'm just doing this for fun, doing it for a good time,' " explained the cheery, svelte Young. "But in the back of your mind you're thinking, 'I really want to win.' "

So just sit right back and you'll hear a tale... or maybe you won't. For a solid minute, you didn't hear anything over the ear-splitting roar of 43-year-old Kalar, meaner and more darkly complected than Alan Hale's Skipper, jerk-starting a 6,250-watt gasoline generator. He plugged a blender full of ice chunks, strawberries, and red goop into said generator, and with a couple of violent yanks on the ripcord, the machine clatter-ground to life. The combined magic of fossil fuels, a 10-horsepower engine, and Black & Decker pulverized the blender contents to slush.

Then Kalar poured a dose into a coconut shell.

"Daiquiri?" he offered.


The cook-off, which is Florida's largest and sponsored by Kiss Country WKIS- FM (99.9) draws comers from all corners. For every hokey Gilligan's Island-type booth, someone arrives in everyday attire. One such band is the Dirty White Boys, a "big group of good old country boys," as Mike Shoemaker, owner of TopGun Cycles in Davie, describes them. Around 6:30 a.m. on cook-off day, Shoemaker, his gray hair shaved short but for a long ponytail, stands in the parking lot of his shop awaiting the arrival of his companions. He buries his hands in his overalls pockets against the crisp nip.

"It is," he proclaims, "too fuckin' early for this shit."

The Davie fuzz agrees. A patrol car pulls into the lot, and Shoemaker leans into the passenger side window for a couple of seconds to reassure the cop that no one has broken into the bike shop.

The stragglers roll in. Wayne Lambert, a normally cheery man with a blond goatee and a Dixieland accent, pulls up on his Harley. "I've been better," he announces. He lost his cell phone while drinking the night before. Could be worse, though. He once got drunk at a field party and the next morning found a cartoonish lion tattoo on his left shoulder.

Finally, Lambert's closest friend and main chili-cooking rival, Shawn Moore, arrives with his bald pate and five hoop earrings gleaming in the gloaming. A "got pussy?" T-shirt peeks from under green overalls. He lugs from his truck a gallon jar of coral-colored liquid full of spheres: maraschino cherries that have soaked in 151-proof rum for the last two months and that hit your stomach like napalm crossed with NyQuil. "Oh, yeaaaah," Shoemaker says as he downs one.

They pile into Shoemaker's black 2001 Hummer H1, onto five Harleys, and a trike tricked-out in Miami Dolphins colors for the nine-mile ride. A mile and a half outside the park entrance, they run into a mile and a half of traffic. Drivers stop and drink Coors in the median. It takes another 20 minutes for Shoemaker to pilot his stomper to the front of the line, past the stringent security guards, and onto the park grounds. Moore's and Lambert's status as competitors allows their guests, too, to bypass the line.

At 8 a.m., Shoemaker reconvenes with Moore, Lambert, and the rest of the Dirty White Boys at a 15- by 30-foot area lined with 12 motorcycles and yellow crime-scene tape. Underfoot is a giant square of parlor-quality carpet that Moore and Lambert toted there the previous afternoon. They never refer to the carpet without referencing the color: It is red carpet. Overalls, leather, Harleys, the carpet, and a banner emblazoned with "DIRTY WHITE BOYS" hanging from their tent are their only efforts at display. That's just who they are.

Fifteen minutes later, the security guards at the park's entrances set free the folding-chair-toting herds penned behind the barricades, and bystanders are privy to a phenomenon that Lambert likes to call The Running of the Boobs. The boobs, they sprint. All of them: the fat men with folding chairs and moms outrunning their kids with flip-flops a'click-clackin' on the paths beside the Bud Light Hummer H2, past a mammoth boat being raffled, alongside the alligator meat stand, up to the grass right against the front stage that today will serve a buffet of country music hash (Keith Urban, Hank Williams Jr., et al.). There, the boobs settle in, comfier than ticks on a sow, as the day's madness yawns and rubs its eyes.

The Dirty White Boys laugh at this, but they are here for chili, serious chili -- and to look at girls, and to drink beer. No, really, they're focused on meat and sauce simmered on a propane stove on a red carpet.

"I look forward to it all year," Lambert says. "It's basically for bragging rights. It's a pride issue."


By 10:30 a.m., people have deluged the park grounds. The girls wear tank tops and braids. The guys have donned jeans, sneakers, and cowboy hats. Mullets and calico dentistry abound. The tattoos range from ornate eagles and flags to perhaps the world's worst ink: above a teenager's right pectoral, a blotchy doodle of a hammock between two palm trees and the words "It's All Good" scrawled around it. This event, which will draw about 30,000 to the park, is a magnet for the communities west of I-95, where the South Florida of yachts and plastic noses gives way to big yards, horse farms, and wallet-sized belt buckles.

"Hey!" the skinny kid wearing overalls and braces says to a photographer. "Hey, we're going to line up and pull our pants down. You ready?"

Astonishing, really, given the ubiquity of cameras, that the sight of one can still transform folks into organ-grinder monkeys. In the dusty parking lot across the pond from the festival grounds, the late morning pre-party is in hell-raising mode. The skinny kid's ass never shows; he leaves the mooning to a friend, who drops trou for the camera while drinking a beer. Not 20 feet away, a young Lake Worth woman named Tiffany keeps popping in and out of her bikini top, "but that's not Tiffany, remember," she says. "That's Candy." Sure, baby, whatever you're into.

From behind a van with a sofa and a keg in the back, an older guy called Pops emerges with a blender full of burgundy rum runners that he serves up in Dixie cups. He suggests to Tiffany/Candy that she might be more comfortable without her top. She demurs. Just then a truck creeps past with a payload of shirtless, twentyish guys brandishing beer bottles, hootin'. It appears to be rolling on its own, but in fact, one of the guys is somehow steering the pickup while standing outside the driver's side door, hollerin'.

Believe it or not, this isn't too far from what a cook-off is supposed to be. The cuisine, according to the lore, got its start in the rustic 19th-century world of cowboys and tough -- we mean stringy, unpleasant, and trail-worn -- beef. If the meat was headed south, well, hell: drown it in swamp water, add some wild peppers, cook it long enough to soften the flesh, and then feast. No more rustic food could you scrounge, then or now.

Florida, though home to more cattle than any other state east of Tennessee, learned this chili cook-off thing from Texas. The legendary stock car racer Carroll Shelby gets credit for founding the International Chili Society in 1967, when, according to current ICS CEO Carol Hancock, he held a competition as an excuse to bring hundreds of people to see a few thousand acres of ranch land he was trying to peddle. In what has become a huge annual ritual in a Texas panhandle burg called Terlingua, he pitted journalist and self-proclaimed chili maven H. Allen Smith against chef Wick Fowler. "What happened is, I will tell you truthfully," Hancock says, "they all got drunk and nobody won." The ICS now boasts about 4,000 members who compete at more than 200 sanctioned events nationwide.

In Broward, chili cook-offs predate ICS sanctioning, or even sponsorship. Lambert's girlfriend, Janet Joy, remembers cook-offs in the late '70s that had no admission fee, tiny booths, and free tastings. The culture was more biker than country, she recalls, though she says she stopped going after people there got into, uh, stabbings. Joy says "they were basically controlled field parties." That is, they were controlled until they weren't.

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."

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.

They don't indulge in costumes. "We're here to cook chili," Robert Bigge says. But they're so dedicated and earnest that it's hard not to root for this family. Last year, Robert donated his $500 first-place winnings to the cook-off's chosen charity, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County. With all the booths' registration fees going to the charity, the cook-off raised nearly $15,000 this year, organizers said.

"We have a formula that works," Gina explains as she spreads a blanket on the grass for Jack. She's finally comfortable, now that she and her kids are safely bivouacked. "They had us park in East Guam," she says. They had to walk through the parking lot gamut outside, past the bare butts and such. "People on bullhorns, shouting freakin' this and freakin' that. And I'm with my kids." She apparently managed to channel her emotion into her cooking. The chili doesn't have the beautiful, earthy red of her husband's recipe, but her beef has melded perfectly with the spices, and its heat blooms like an orchid in the back of the throat.

If there's such a thing as revenge chili, this may be it.


While the human mouth contains perhaps 10,000 taste buds scattered around the tongue, cheeks, and lips, the human chest features just two thin covers to the lactiferous ducts, and those are nearly as responsive to temperature changes as the delicate sensors in the mouth.

Hence, at noontime, in the Dirty White Boys' tent, here is a 42-year-old bearded, leather-jacketed Dane named Claus Jensen jamming his arm deep into the ice cubes of a cooler. Jensen is a modern-day Renaissance man. He speaks six languages -- seven, if you allow that saying "give me a blowjob" in Italian constitutes functional fluency in that particular tongue -- and he understands physiology enough to explain why he pours ice water into his Super Soaker: "It makes their nipples get harder."

By this time, noonish, the world has aligned itself to Jensen's and the rest of the Dirty White Boys' anatomical experiments. The sun is up, and it is hot. The beer has been flowing all day. The girls, by and large, are dressed for the weather, many sporting the kind of curves that testify to the power of the bovine hormones in milk these days.

Jensen sits on a cooler under the tent and fires streams of frigid water onto the chests of practically any female between the ages of 17 and 50. Some duck and flee, but most appear to appreciate the attention. As he sprays one pretty young brunette in a pink-and-white bikini top and pink cowboy hat, she leans into it, then turns to invite water onto her back.

The bald Moore, perched on a bike a few feet away, calls her over and implores her to bare just one breast, reasoning that if you've seen one, you've seen them both.

"Hey, did you see my shirt?" he asks her.

She leans closer, and makes out the red stitching on his overalls, behind his Mardi Gras beads. "Please tell your tits to stop staring at my eyes," she reads aloud. "I like that!"

"I like those," Moore replies, but his flattery falls flat.

Moore's chili pedigree goes back to living in North Carolina with his father, who would greet trespassers with rock salt fired from a shotgun and who cooked a mean squirrel- and duck-based Brunswick stew. As a young man, Moore lived for a spell in Houston, where chili was cooked in pots big enough to stir with an oar and accompanied with plenty of raw peppers and cornbread. He attended the first cook-off 20 years ago, as a hired hammer, to build a booth for a friend. Eventually, he joined as a competitor. After experimenting with alligator meat ("My friends are poachers," he says), he won the whole shebang in 2000 with a mixture of steak, chicken, and Jimmy Dean pork sausage ground up on-site.

With his five dollar squirt gun tucked under one arm, Moore tends his pot, which keeps coughing steam puffs, roiling like fresh lava. "This shit's gonna win," he says. "I'm winning this year."

Moore and Lambert, his goateed chum, maintain a friendly but intense rivalry when it comes to chili. A couple of yards away, Lambert stirs his pot, which roils over a propane burner. He takes his Marlboro Light out of his mouth and makes a scolding sound, as if he were telling a 2-year-old to keep his finger out of his nose. It seems to unnerve Moore.

"Fuck you, you asshole," Moore says. "Your shit looks like Walt Disney threw up on it."

"This is Walt Disney," Lambert retorts. Then he questions whether Moore won the contest in 2000 "with that Hormel 7-Eleven hot dog shit?" Lambert derived his chili chops from his pop, who on Sundays would concoct huge pots of chili for his four kids. His parents moved from Baltimore to Virginia when he was 16 years old, and Lambert elected to live on his own to finish high school. Cooking for himself, he survived on chili that usually served as a depository for whatever leftover condiments he had in the fridge. "It's an old bachelor trick," he says. "Any guy that makes chili will tell you it's just a matter of grabbing shit, throwing it in there, and seeing if it tastes good."

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."

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.

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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