The Big Chil

Page 6 of 7

Kalar originally entered the cook-off four years ago for the country concert. When some young women stop by the tent, he whips out a three-ring binder that holds pictures of him with various country stars.

"Tracy Lawrence!" one of the girls blurts.

"Buddy Jewell!" says another. Further back in the book, there's a photo of the president of Honduras, an occasional poker buddy.

As Kalar beams, Young stirs a pot of brown meat simmering on a tabletop propane grill with three gnarly peppers floating on top. "It's thick," he says to Angie Fox, a.k.a. Ginger, standing beside him in a coral-pink cocktail dress. "I think it's better than last year." Young had never cooked chili before Kalar conscripted him. Now he finds himself taking it more and more seriously; today he cooks purely on the aroma, tasting his chili not once before the judges come to collect the entries. "Nobody says it's real competitive," Young says, "but it is. They joke about it, but they're serious. Especially Ralph."

Kalar offers more Jell-O shots, and flutters on, likely to tell the competitors in the nearby tents that their chilis look and/or taste like dog food. For these few hours, at least, Kalar is the king of a little universe of his own making, the ringleader, benefactor, the Skipper.

In the early afternoon, beneath the welcome shade of Corporate Pavilion 19, white-and-red Styrofoam containers line a row of picnic tables, 78 anonymous quarts of red. Somewhere in those tasty lines are Young and Kalar's mahogany Angus; Lambert's and Moore's respective crimson brews; and the Bigges' chilis, his a nice brick red, hers a cinnamon hue.

The judges, 50 men and women of sundry ages and sizes, mow slowly through them, sipping, slurping, thinking. They are dressed in bikini tops and cowboy hats and button-down dress shirts and ball caps. For about an hour, the only noticeable sound is the clink-clank-clink of plastic spoons landing in garbage cans. The judges scarcely look at one another as they scribble notes like "good" or "spicy" or "too salty," or as one male judge dubs chili #71, which is just knobby beef chunks floating in red fluid, "worst today -- worst ever."

While International Chili Society-worthy chilis have featured virtually every variety of spice, liquor, and crawling critter, there is such a thing as regulation chili, and it doesn't include fillers like rice, pasta, potatoes, or beans. Excluding beans is a matter of some debate, but the rationale is, they're a dominant flavor, and the judges want to taste spices permeating meat.

Now, distinguishing between 78 cups of dead animal soaked in gravy is an exercise in hairsplitting. Probably no one under this pavilion has done it more than judge Sergei Kowalchik of Key Biscayne. During his cooking days in the '80s, he placed as high as third in the world; since he began judging in 1993, he estimates he has tasted 200 competitive chilis a year. "This is subjective as hell," says the former engineer, but he has tasting down to a science. He feels for heat in the front of the mouth, the back, and what he calls a "tang" in the cheeks (cider vinegar does it). Aroma, appearance, and aftertaste are all appraised. The biggest factor is the consistency of the meat. Has it absorbed the flavors? Has it withstood three hours of cooking? The finer beef cuts have only a brief window in which they peak -- tri-tip is in top shape for only 30 minutes before it's overcooked; New York cut, Kowalchik says, is best for just eight minutes. And it can't be too hot. "If you want hot," he says, "go to the store, get a bottle of Tabasco and drink it, because it's a helluva lot cheaper and less trouble."

A bespectacled judge wanders the grounds with a bullhorn, directing contestants to the pavilion. They crowd -- families, buddies, rivals -- onto the picnic tables. Kalar's group sits within spitting distance of emcee Soper; the biker Lambert stands with his arms crossed; the Bigges cradle their kids on their laps near the aisle. Soper unfolds a piece of yellow paper to announce the chilis that made it to the final table -- that is, top 15.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling