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Thousands take part in annual Chili Cook-off in Pembroke Pines

More than 20,000 country music fans crammed into the C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines on Sunday for the 28th annual Kiss Country Chili Cookoff.

Gabriela Gomez, 20, met her boyfriend, Brian Khanamirian, at last year’s cookoff, and the two came together this year to see country music star Luke Bryan perform.

“I loved the way he interacted with the crowd,” said Gomez, “and that’s one of the reasons I came this year.”

The Chili Cookoff and music festival began in 1986 with a single group — the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — and has ballooned into one of the nation’s largest annual country music festivals.

Last year’s crowd, estimated at 30,000, overwhelmed the park. WKIS-FM representative Annie Sandor said organizers listened to feedback and made changes. They sold fewer tickets this year — about 22,500.

“It was a full house,” said Sandor, “and the changes we made were very beneficial and made it better all around.”

But the lines to get in were still long.

Amanda Antonacci, 19, pulled into the park at 4 a.m. to tailgate, but had to wait in a 30-minute line to get into the concert area at 11:30 a.m. “I came to see the Florida Georgia Line,” she said, “but they’re already on.”

Some frustrated ticket-holders jumped barricades and slipped past preoccupied park staffers to cut to the front.

Past the ticket check, droves of denim-clad fans wound past booths selling roasted corn, seafood, cowboy hats and frosted lemonade.

Melinda Acord, 42, came to help her parents set up their funnel cake and ice cream booth.

“We were here in 1988,” Acord said as her mother, Linda, worked the fryer. “I was in high school,” she said. “We’ve always done food. It’s a lot busier now — a lot more people.” This time, Acord’s daughter Alyssa, 11, was excited to come to the festival for the first time.

While some came for the concert, others came for the chili.

A total of 128 teams competed for the cookoff’s trophy and the crowd’s approval. Chefs doled dollops of chili into Dixie cups and hawked them to passers-by.

Heidi Beeman, 38, drove from Key West to compete in the festival with longtime friend and Miami resident Joey Hernandez.

“I chopped a lotta meat last night,” Beeman said. “I came all the way up just to do this. This is my third time, but my first time coming up from Key West.”

Beeman said she wasn’t disappointed when her team’s chili didn’t win.

“It’s OK,” she said. “It tasted good to me.”

A group called “Slap Yo Partner’s Chili” took first place in the chili category, and the “Famous Ass Chili” team took the prize for best salsa. “Gator Done Chili” won for best showmanship.

Dustin Perdue, 42, has come to the cookoff for the past 12 years to showcase his homemade mix.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a lot of good people and a great party.”

Perdue said he didn’t come for a trophy.

“I’m just about being here with my friends,” he said, wiping his hands on his chili-stained apron.