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The Big Chil

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 Island and 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.

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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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