The Big Chil

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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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling