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Barbecue in the backwoods, Texas-style with secret tweaks

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2004

MONSON, Maine -- Spring Creek Cookhouse and Bar-B-Q Emporium would be a good place to be stuck in a blizzard.

The yellow clapboard house with red trim, an uncommon color combination in these parts, stands out in this central Maine town. Lights twinkle from inside the windows on the front porch. American, Confederate, and Texas flags flap bravely in the subzero wind. Marty, a blind yellow Labrador retriever, welcomes visitors.

Cookhouse proprietors Mike and Kim Witham have fed many, including ravenous, penniless ''thru hikers" on the Appalachian Trail that passes through Monson. One fellow literally sang for his supper. Weary snowmobilers and paddlers have been known to doze off, even crash overnight in the snug dining room.

Then there's the food. What better way to weather a snowstorm than to feast on brisket barbecued in a tomato-based sauce, crisp coleslaw made from scratch, and smokey, flavorful Jacob's cattle beans baked slowly in a cast-iron pot. Top it off with a generous slice of carrot cake and coffee. Who wouldn't fall sleep?

Until the 1980s, barbecue places were unheard of in Maine. Vacationers flocked here for lobster, steamers, crab rolls, and blueberry pie. Now pits serving barbecue Hawaiian to Cajun style have sprung up all along the coast. The last weekend in September, Monson hosts the Maine State Barbecue Championships. Thank the Withams for that.

A burly, outgoing fellow, Mike Witham was a land surveyor for 30 years. He got his first taste of Texas-style barbecue while working on a job in Baytown, east of Houston. Using a 55-gallon drum, he started barbecuing for family and friends and has been refining his techniques ever since.

At Spring Creek Cookhouse, he designed the outdoor cooker, made of steel, which features a sliding plate to regulate and shut off the smoke. He uses maple and hornbeam to fire the cooker. He is mum about what goes into the various spicy rubs and sauces he slathers the meat with.

''Ancient Chinese secret," he says, grinning.

Save for the baked beans, Kim Witham prepares all the side dishes and desserts. Her rum cake and pineapple-pear upside down cake are much in demand.

Kim is also responsible for the cookhouse's homey, eclectic atmosphere. Moose racks and shadow boxes containing pressed wildflowers and butterfies mingle on the walls. Diners can peruse guidebooks on local flora and fauna while sipping one of many herbal teas set out, or, later, dip into a history of the Grateful Dead.

The music-loving Withams met and married at the annual Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival in Sydney, Maine. Speakers are tucked under the cookhouse porch roof, and it is not unusual to hear Jerry Garcia's mellow voice drifting through the air.

Spring Creek Cookhouse is bustling in summer, with the line of customers often spilling out into the street. Business stays brisk in the winter, as skiers and snowmobilers converge on the area, and finally slows down during mud season. The Withams like the pace of life here and don't plan to expand.

''This is what you would find in Texas: a little, out-of-the-way place with a cooker," says Mike Witham.

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