FINLAND, Minn. — Dan Cahill Mathews opens the lid of a 7-foot-long smoker. Steam escapes the chamber as he covers racks of ribs in sauce and packs them in foil before placing them back on the grate.
As if answering a silent chow bell, patrons approach seeking the day’s goods from Baptism River Barbecue Co.
The Finland, Minnesota-based business operates out of a mobile tent, which allows Dan and Kaylee Cahill Mathews to pop up around the area.
They’re specializing in what they call “north woods barbecue.”
Rather than imitate Texas or North Carolina traditions, Dan smokes their meat over birch and maplewood from area forests. They use maple syrup in their made-from-scratch sauces, and all meats and produce come from the Arrowhead region — Yker Acres, Salt and Light Heritage Farm in Two Harbors and more.
“We’re trying to create a flavor you can only identify in northern Minnesota, the North Shore, Lake Superior,” Dan said.
And that all extends to the wood they use.
“Most barbecue purists would say fruit woods for pork. Beef, you’re using hickory or mesquite or oak. And we just don’t really have that available nearby. We’re using what the loggers up here have,” said Dan.
The couple said it’s key for a business named after the Baptism River to support and have support from the Finland and Silver Bay, Minnesota, communities.
“A lot of people call the Silver Bay area a ‘food desert,’” Kaylee said. “It’s exciting for us to bring food to the community we live in.”
Their menu is a mix of beef brisket, pork belly burnt ends, smoked turkey, house-made bacon and pork spare ribs.
They aim to use the whole animal, snout to tail, and to offer nontraditional cuts. (They’re experimenting with beef tongue.) This sustainable practice helps farmers use more of the animals, and it eases food costs, Dan said.
Their sides vary with each event.
Along with locally harvested ingredients, their regional flair extends to their sauces.
There’s a sweet and smoky crowd favorite mixed with locally tapped maple syrup; a mustard-based sauce, inspired by the classic beef pastrami sandwich; and a vinegar and pepper-based sauce with a bit of ketchup, which fits, Dan said: “In Minnesota, they say ketchup is a spice.”
They’ve tried everything on their menu, and the food is amazing, said Brandy Penglase of Silver Bay. She said it’s nice to have fare like this available in the area.
“We stalk their Facebook page just for their updates,” said Mike Graber, noting the time they drove to Two Harbors and back just to hit one of their events.
The couple and their son visited the barbecue tent on a hot July afternoon in Beaver Bay. The ribs weren’t ready yet, but the couple was in the market for some. They fall off the bone, very tender, Graber recalled.
“They melt in your mouth,” Penglase added.
Dan and Kaylee smoke their meat for several hours.
The smoker takes about two hours to heat up from first fire to meat placement. And while many smokers are pellet-burning or electric, theirs uses wood. It can hold 300 pounds or a whole pig, Kaylee said, and they’re maxing it out nearly every day they’re in business.
When they smoke beef brisket, it’s a 15-hour, overnight commitment. For that, Dan sets an hourly alarm to check the temperature, flavor and heat quality. The tip: a clean fire burns blue, Dan said, which means you’re getting good smoke.
Asked about burns, “His arms look a lot better than four years ago,” Kaylee said.
Dan used to work in restaurants in the Twin Cities, and while he’d gone down several career paths, “food kept calling me back,” he said.
The couple moved to the North Shore three years ago. They launched Baptism River Barbecue Co. in May, and they work full time when they’re not serving and smoking food.
Kaylee is front of house and sous chef; he’s the chef and smoker.
After snagging their nearly new smoker from a barbecue rub company on Craigslist, Dan got to work, testing techniques on the grates and recipes in the kitchen.
Since they launched the barbecue company, Kaylee has adapted to kitchen cues — like, saying the word “behind” when you’re holding something heavy or hot, or walking behind someone with a knife, Dan said.
“Now, I do that at home, and I don’t even need to,” she said.
They’re still trying to find a balance between work, work and rest, but building their business together has aided their communication and understanding. They’re also enjoying the added time together.
“We’re really proud of what we’re accomplishing together and creating a path in our lives that we want to have,” Kaylee said.
And, building their business from scratch up the shore has significance.
Dan proposed to Kaylee on the high falls of the Baptism River. They purchased a home with a backyard facing Tettegouche State Park.
“The Baptism River has become very special to us,” Dan said. “It became part of our story.”