The Big Chil

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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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling