The Big Chil

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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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling