The Big Chil

Page 5 of 7

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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling