Battle for BBQ bragging rights

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

MAY THE BEST COOKER WIN — Eric Heath and Nick Klimek, top photo, have a friendly wager going with Bob McHatton Jr. (below) and his partner, John Haley (not in picture) may compete with their cookers in the July 23-24 Western Maine BBQ Festival at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds. The losing team will have to wear a T-shirt announcing their loss to the winning team.

Fire up a big barbeque smoker on a summer day in western Maine, and watch the crowd circle ’round.

Nick Klimek, owner of Bridgton’s Black Horse Tavern, can attest to that truth. When he fires up Eric Heath’s 300-gallon smoker behind the restaurant, “everyone swarms around it — you can smell it all the way down to Main Street,” Klimak said.

Heath nods, knowingly. It’s really kind of a tribal thing, he says, the urge to gather around the fire. In the 15 years he’s been building custom smokers and delivering them to backyard barbeques, tailgate parties, family reunions and the like, he’s seen it.

“It’s one of the oldest methods of cooking food. They want to know all about how it works,” and make the smoker the central conversation piece of the party, Heath said. After cooking for 10-12 hours at 250 to 275 degrees, he said, the meat is so tender, “It’s fall-off-the-bone good.”

Heath and Klimek don’t mind talking about the mechanics of their smoker, built from a converted 275-gallon oil tank. But when it comes to the rubs and the spices, the choices that go into the meat that they cook — well, that’s a different story.

They’re especially secretive about their barbequing techniques when long-time patron Bob McHatton Jr. comes into the Black Horse to eat. That’s because McHatton, owner of Water Out, has his own smoker and, with barbequing partner John Haley, will be competing against Klimek and Heath for bragging rights in the upcoming Western Maine BBQ Festival July 23-24 at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds.

The two teams, in good fun, have a friendly wager on the line for Sunday’s Kansas City Barbeque Society competition, expected to draw up to 50 teams from across the northeast. Each local team knows they’ll be going up against some hard-core BBQ’ers who travel the country going to competitions like the one happening on Sunday, or Saturday’s New England Barbeque Society grilling competition.

If they don’t win the $12,500 in prize money or qualify for the American Royal Championship, that’s okay.

They just want to beat each other.

“We’re going to make Bob wear a T-shirt, saying ‘I got beat by Black Horse’,” Klimek said. Noting that McHatton’s a big guy, he added, “And we’re going to order a double extra-small.”

Not to be outdone, McHatton said his smoker, a converted 300-gallon water tank built by Haley a year ago, is made from a lot heavier steel than Heath’s smoker, and doesn’t tend to contort as much when heated.

Does that make a difference in how the meat tastes?

“No, but it will give us something to tweak them about,” McHatton said. He and Haley take the smoker around to BBQs and parties for fun. “We like to cook,” he said.

All four men agree on one thing: the Western Maine BBQ Festival, the brainchild of an effort by the Denmark Lions Club, is a great idea for promoting the attractions of western Maine and supporting local Lions clubs.

“Anybody that cooks in their back yard and thinks their food is good ought to come on down and try it out,” McHatton said of the competition, which is a first for both teams.

Heath said he has told “everyone about it that is even remotely connected with BBQ” about the festival, hoping they will form BBQ teams and compete. He even is offering to build them a cooker.

“This is definitely a positive thing for the region,” said Klimek, who said he understands that the Olde Mill Tavern and Trailside Restaurant may also send teams.

Klimek said Heath’s smoker has a definite edge over Haley’s smoker because it’s 10 years old, while Haley’s is only one year old. That’s 10 years of aromas seeping into the tank.

Asked about Klimek’s tank-age advantage, McHatton quipped, “I’d have to say if it was 10 years of good aromas, I’d have to agree with that.” He and Haley make all of their own rubs and sauces. “It’s going to be a lot of fun irregardless of who wins or loses,” McHatton said. “Nick and Eric are good guys. It’s going to be a good time.”

Festival organizers have sought the support of local sponsors and, whenever possible, have tried to use local businesses for all their planning needs.

“We hope the festival will introduce people to local inns and B&Bs, restaurants, stores, and services,” said Denmark Lion Mark Allen. “We want the festival itself to generate business for the local economy.”

The festival website, www.westernmainebbqfestival.com, contains information about forming a BBQ team or attending the many festival attractions, including a BBQ cooking course, classic car show, live music all weekend on two stages and fly-fishing, beer-making and other demonstrations. More information may also be obtained by calling Allen or his wife Sonya at 647-4449.

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