But he will keep on eating whoopie pies, running with dead fish, bounding across lobster crates, and flinging manure . . . till the end. We sent our man on a quixotic quest for glory at four classic Maine summer festivals.
They arrived as men (and one woman) to that sun-beaten parking lot behind the Pastimes Pub, five mere mortals possessed of a hunger. All would leave changed — four in defeat, their heads hung low and stomachs distended, arteries hardening with trans fats and regret; one in euphoric conquest, rising unsteadily from the picnic table, having consumed in a sitting roughly 1½ times the recommended daily calories for an active adult male.
And what, you ask, do six hamburger-size whoopie pies taste like, consumed in rapid succession, each bite crammed methodically atop the gooey and half-chewed remains of the last, so that one’s mouth is never truly empty but, for 10 uninterrupted minutes, constantly chewing, constantly filling and refilling with a sweet chowder of cake, shortening, and saliva?
They taste like glory, my friend. Like layers of creamy victory sandwiched between moist and chocolate-y mounds of triumph.
Or, anyway, that’s what I imagine they taste like. I only managed to eat 2½ pies in the Whoopie Pie Eating Contest at Dover-Foxcroft’s annual Maine Whoopie Pie Festival before my esophagus seized up like an overheated piston. It was a disappointing start to my summertime quest: a gallant pursuit of honor, prestige, and free t-shirts at a handful of Maine’s most quintessential small-town festivals.
The year before, I had interviewed one Beau Bradstreet, of Bridgewater, for a short article in this magazine. Bradstreet, as you may already know, is the reigning champion of the Moxie Chug-n-Challenge at Lisbon’s three-day Moxie Festival, held every July since 1982. A few months after he and I talked, Bradstreet slammed 10 cans of Maine’s semi-bitter heritage soda in two minutes, winning the contest for the fourth consecutive year (and subsequently won again last year). Towards the end of our mostly cheeky interview — which revolved heavily around other beverages Bradstreet likes to chug — the champ went and said something unexpectedly poignant.
“When I was up on the stage last year,” he recalled, “I could hear my 4-year-old boy’s little voice. He had a can of Moxie under his arm, and he pointed up and said, ‘That’s my dad up there.’ ” Bradstreet chuckled. “That makes it all worth it.”
My own son, as it happens, is an exuberant toddler, but as a shiftless and effete magazine writer, I have literally never done a single thing that he can be proud of. (Once, last February, I came pretty close, almost fixing some plumbing behind our washing machine before I broke a fastener and made everything worse.) So last summer, I started thinking it was time to make my mark on the world. And with the legendary Beau Bradstreet as my inspiration, I decided the Maine summer festival competition circuit was the perfect place to do it.
You needn’t be a competitive eater to enjoy the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival. The gated portion is a concrete garden of girthly delights, where $5 gets you in to sample whoopie pies of every conceivable variety (peanut butter! carrot cake! root beer float! all for 25 cents a taste!) from bakeries and restaurants across the state. My strategic error might have been inhaling a half-dozen samples before the main event, snacking with my wife and son while we watched a goggly-eyed whoopie pie mascot shimmy to “Maine’s premier Elton John Tribute Band.”
Bobby Koenig, of Gray, won second place in the afternoon’s teen competition. “The trick,” he told me, when I cornered him afterwards, “is to really break apart the pies, make them easier to chew.” Take little sips of milk between bites, Koenig warned me, and pace yourself.
When the adult competition started, I set out to follow Koenig’s advice, tearing at my whoopie pie like a wolverine. Within seconds, though, it was clear to participants and spectators that this was a two-man contest. Before I’d even finished crumbling my pie, both 48-year-old Roy Smith, of Burlington, and 20-year-old Joey Hilt, of Warren (reigning champ, two years running), had a pie down and were digging into their second. It was like watching a National Geographic video of hyenas in a feeding frenzy. Truly terrifying.
Flash forward 10 minutes: I’m groaning and picking feebly at my third pie. Hilt has eaten five and is leaning over a trash can, valiantly holding back what competitive eaters refer to as a “reversal of fortune.” Smith, visibly trembling, swallows the last bites of whoopie pie number six and rises to receive his victory t-shirt. It might be the hyperglycemia affecting my vision, but from the corner of my eye, I swear I can see my son standing at the edge of the crowd, his head lowered in shame.
The thing they don’t tell you about the codfish relay at Maine’s most exuberant Fourth of July celebration is that it lasts two hours and it’s 80 degrees out and there are only two freaking fish. And since the race’s 16 and Under division, which goes first, seems to attract every warm-blooded juvenile in Washington County, those 10-pound codfish have been thoroughly manhandled before any adult even lays hands on them. By the time the Down East team (the “Monsters of the Midcoast”) stepped to the starting line, ours looked like it had lost a bar fight, suffered a botched gastrectomy, and then gone off to wallow in a puddle of slime.
In case you’ve never been to a codfish race, its beauty is in its simplicity: One at a time, each member of a four-person relay team dons various pieces of fishermen’s oil gear — PVC bibs, a slicker, big rubber boots — then grabs a festering and oil-slickened cod out of a bucket and runs without dropping it (cradled, over the shoulder, and clenched between teeth are all popular holds) to an opposing station 20 or 30 yards away, where the runner undresses and a teammate repeats the process until all four racers have run. Two teams go at it side by side, and when everyone’s through, the winner is the crew with the fastest time.
Down the road, in Milbridge, where codfish racing got its start in 1984, race organizers up the ante by having local firefighters hose down participants as they’re running. But then, the Milbridgians take their codfish racing pretty seriously — in 2009, a 50-person street brawl broke out during the annual Milbridge Days codfish relay that sent two people to the hospital and took 12 officers to quell (technically, the fight was unrelated to the race, but still, don’t mess with people from Milbridge).
When the family and I pulled into Eastport, lawn chairs already lined Water Street, where local firefighters were competing in a hose-spraying contest against the Coast Guard. We bought fried dough and 32-ounce hand cannons of lemonade, and we dodged kids spraying squirt guns as we scoped the carnival rides and the craft fair. There’s a comforting sameness to most small-town merrymaking, and Eastport’s five-day funfair plays like a summer festival Greatest Hits album: Face-painting and caricature artists? Check. Watermelon-eating contest? Check. Doll parade and princess pageant and awkward community talent show? Check, check, and check.
During well over an hour of kiddie codfish racing, not a soul packed up her lawn chair. Team after team, handoff after sloppy handoff, the crowds went wild. I studied winning strategies from the sideline and compared notes with my teammates: Down East senior editor Ginny Wright, former editorial assistant Grace-Yvette Gemmell, and former Down East Books sales rep Linda Callahan — codfish relay newbies, the lot of us. The winning team in the youth division resembled the Von Trapp kids — a set of blond, impossibly wholesome-looking siblings visiting from Sacramento. They finished in 1 minute, 33 seconds and cheerfully told me the trick was to help each other with the boots (alas, forbidden for adults).
When the MC announced the grown-up races, the Monsters of the Midcoast were the first team called. We took our stations. Someone sounded an air horn, and the next few minutes are mostly a blur of crowd noise and fish stink.
Ginny ran first, all but leaping into the oil gear. With the cod tucked under one arm, she held up the bibs with the other and barreled across the course like a charging bull. We lost a few precious seconds when Grace-Yvette struggled with the boots, sitting on the pavement to slide them on. Linda held the fish like a bag of trash, arm outstretched, and it swung like a greasy pendulum as she ran, flinging warm bits of cod flesh into the crowd.
Bringing up the rear, I slung the fish over my shoulder, its gutted belly hitting my neck with a wet smack. I gave a Braveheart battle cry and charged the finish line like a bloodthirsty warrior, hurling the fish into a waiting bucket and tearing off the oil gear. Then the air horn sounded again, and the MC announced our time: 2 minutes, 7 seconds.
Respectable, but a few seconds behind our opponents — and almost a minute shy of what would be the day’s winning time. There would be no free t-shirts for the Monsters of the Midcoast. We took a few photos kissing our cod, then slunk off to a waterfront pub to lick our wounds.
The fact that this activity is primarily meant for children was not brought to my attention until I started getting weird looks from parents in the registration tent. It was a crisp, blue-sky Labor Day weekend, and the masts of the tall ships cast neat angular shadows on the buildings surrounding Camden’s pretty harbor. In the tent, a woman with a clipboard surveyed potential crate racers and, one at a time, asked us our ages. My competition piped up:
The clipboard lady turned to me.
“Um, 35,” I muttered.
She looked at me like I’d shown up to a birthday party uninvited and wearing a clown suit.
Crate racing, you see, rewards buoyancy — the goal is to scamper across a string of 27 wooden lobster crates floating in the harbor. And one thing about 35-year-old men who spend their summers subsisting on whoopee pies, fried dough, and beer is that we are not buoyant. I didn’t realize how much trouble I was in until I got in line with crate-racing vets Angus Carter, 12, Sam Conlan, 13, and Ionut Lodge, 15, all of greater Camden. I asked, nervously, how many crates do you fellas think you’ll make it across? Angus shrugged. Last year, he said, he went across a dozen or so times. His pals agreed that this was a reasonable goal.
“Wow, 12 crates?” I asked.
No, Angus said. He crossed the whole string 12 times.
“If you have a few seconds before your two minutes run out,” he added helpfully, “just jump off so you still get your free towel.”
A single towheaded youngster preceded me in the crate-racing line-up, and when the kid hit the drink without crossing the string, I felt a brief burst of confidence. Stepping onto the dock, I waved to my wife and son, sitting in the park across the way, and I whispered a little prayer to Beau Bradstreet.
If you can imagine something more embarrassing then stepping off the dock and immediately belly-flopping into the water, that’s the thing I did. I was buoyant for about a second-and-a-half, bounding across three crates before the fourth one simply sank underneath me. It was less like falling and more like getting pulled down by quicksand. When my knees hit the water, I just toppled over pathetically, still clinging to the crate. I didn’t even make a splash.
Back on the dock, I wrapped my free towel around me and tried again to wave at my son. He was chasing seagulls and didn’t wave back.
Summer in Maine isn’t over until the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association holds their annual three-day festival. If you’ve never been, the Common Ground Country Fair is basically a splendid agricultural fair run by hippies — not sanctimonious, PETA-stickers-on-my-Prius hippies, but fun hippies who like good organic food and fiddle music and draft-horse pulls and contra dancing. And flinging around chunks of cow poop.
Founded by a tongue-in-cheek consortium known as the Manure Spreading Society of Maine, the Harry S. Truman Games became a Common Ground tradition in 1980, the fest’s fourth year. The name comes from an often-told story about the 33rd president, who frequently used “manure” as an expletive. When an offended acquaintance begged the First Lady to stop the President from saying it, Bess Truman replied, “You don’t know how long it took to get him to start saying it.”
A motley crowd gathered behind the recycling tent at 9 a.m. — all ages, men and women, a mix of vets and first-time flingers. Dave Roberts and his 13-year-old son Max came up from Wakefield, Massachusetts, to toss cow pies, as they have for the last three years. “The first time I did it,” Max said cheerfully, “I got maybe a pound of manure on me.” There’s no one secret to success, the Robertses explained. And indeed, before the games, all the contestants gathered around a large dung pile to help one another choose pitchforks and offer pointers on how best to pat a cow patty or roll a fine poop ball.
“Does mine have too much fiber?”
“Fiber’s good — holds it together.”
“Hey, any lacrosse players here? Those guys would have an edge.”
The goal of the manure toss is distance, so the field has measurements running up one side (contestants aim for a bucket at an accuracy contest later in the day). Should one’s fecal nugget come apart in mid-air, the measurement ends where the largest chunk falls. Each flinger takes a different approach — overhead, side arm, running start, whirling like a shot-putter. When my turn came, I chose a long pitchfork with a slight scoop to the tines. My hands were brown from meticulously rolling a perfectly round manure ball, about the size and weight of a cantaloupe. Weight is important — one’s clod must hold together, but distance suffers if it’s packed too densely. My plan was to position the ball in the cradle of my fork, then launch it over my head, using the pitchfork like a spear-thrower, the poop ball rolling off the tines for added velocity.
A hush fell over the assembly as I stepped to the line. I held my manure globe in my hands and inhaled its earthy musk. Something inside of me stirred, something nameless and primal, an ancient fire that I imagine Beau Bradstreet feels when he pulls the tab on that first cold can of Moxie. As I gently laid my poop ball on the pitchfork, it seemed to whisper to me, This is your time, Brian. This is your time.
I put my whole body into my throw, grunting like an ox, and the smelly projectile sailed into the sky. The crowd held its collective breath as the dung ball silhouetted against the sun. For an instant, it seemed to hang there, like it might never come down, might simply take its place in the firmament, a small brown planet hovering benignly over the falafel vendors and the goat-milking demos.
When, at last, the poop sphere fell to earth, it landed with a dull thud of triumph: 63 feet, 9 inches. Enough to earn me a third-place ribbon — and, at long last, a free t-shirt.
And yet, my victory was bittersweet, because my wife and son had slept in that morning, arranging to meet me at the fest with friends later in the day. When they found me, I was eating my second pie cone and wearing my ribbon on my chest like a prize pig. My wife said congrats and declined a hug, but from the sultry way she brushed manure off my shirt, I could tell she was holding back a swoon. My son smiled and came in for the hug. He seemed proud, I thought, but he was quickly distracted by the bunny barn, so it was hard to tell whether he grasped the Olympian scale of my achievement.
Then, a couple of weeks later, I was working late when I got a video text from my wife. I clicked to see our son kneeling in his pajamas, grinning and heavy-lidded.
“Can you say ‘Night-night, Daddy’?” came my wife’s voice. The little guy rubbed his eyes and looked into the camera.
“Night-night, Daddy!” he repeated in a sleepy sing-song.
“And what is Daddy doing?” my wife asked. Our son stared blankly, trying to remember his daddy’s job, then brightened at a sudden memory.
“Cow poop!” he exclaimed, with a note of what sounded like pride.
Photographs by: Mark Fleming (whoopie pies); Mark McCall (codfish); Lauryn Hottinger (crates); Michael Wilson (manure)