Icebox Cookoff ready to launch barbecue weekend

Benny Westcott

Barbecuing may be a Fourth of July tradition, but this Independence Day weekend, the 2022 Sweet Home Icebox Cookoff is taking it to a whole new level.

This year’s three-day event, which is free for the public on Saturday, July 2, beginning at 1 p.m., will feature live music, an evening fireworks show and, of course, barbecue, all at Radiator Supply House, 1460 47th Ave.

But it’s safe to say that this experience might be a bit different than firing up the grill in your uncle’s backyard.

That’s because more than 35 professional pitmaster teams from all over the United States are competing for $35,000 in payouts, the largest on the West Coast, according to RSH co-owner Will Garrett, who was instrumental in launching the competition last year, when some 16 professional squads competed. In addition to Oregon, team members will be making the trip from Idaho, Washington, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Missouri and Mississippi, as well as Canada.

The Cookoff is a qualifier for the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue, scheduled for Oct. 14 and 15 in Lynchburg, Tenn.

“To that world, that’s a huge, huge deal,” Garrett said, noting that Jack Daniels allows only about 35 teams into its annual competition. “Whoever is a grand champion of this gets a lottery ticket for the state of Oregon to be the Oregon team that goes and represents, even if they’re a team from another state. It’s a big deal in the barbecue world.”

Additionally, the winner of the Friday, July 1 steak cookoff receives a “golden ticket” to compete at the 2023 Steak Cookoff Association World Championship in Fort Worth, Texas. And Sunday’s four-meat competition – which includes ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken – is a qualifier for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, which runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2.

Friday and Sunday’s events are not open to the public; rather, event sponsors receive armbands for entry on those days. Those include, in addition to various local and not-so-local businesses, the city of Sweet Home.

Friday kicks off with a People’s Choice competition, in which the three best-judged dishes will win their teams a Fourth of July commemorative gun. Later in the day, the winner of a dessert competition wins an AR-15 rifle. A burger competition will also be held.

In Saturday’s Icebox action, Salem’s Victor Perez, working in conjunction with Craig “The BBQ Ninja” Verhage (“For the foodie people out there, he is a huge icon,” Garrett said), will be holding a live fire demonstration, preparing duck and loins for placement on tacos. The day will feature a mountain lion and Barbados ram on the grill, something Garrett has “never heard of or seen.” Whole hogs, rattlesnakes, and alligators will be barbecued, as well.

Saturday will also play host to People’s Choice competitions, featuring members of the public as judges. Two MotorTrend icons will also be present: “Bitchin’ Rides'” co-host Kevin “Kevdogg” Schiele and Jayson “Shag” Arrington of “Iron Resurrection.” Live music will permeate the weekend, with six bands performing over the event’s three days.

Saturday’s fireworks will go off over the nearly five-acre former log pond on the Radiator Supply House property. The Sweet Home Rodeo Grounds at 4001 Long St. Will handle overflow parking.

The event’s promoter is Mike White, owner of Salem-based Best Damn BBQ Sauce, who burst onto the scene four years ago after a first-place win at the 31st annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue Sauce Contest in Kansas City, Mo., with a sauce he concocted after he couldn’t find any in his refrigerator for his breakfast eggs. He beat out 400 competitors from around the world and decided to turn pro. He helped create the Icebox Cookoff last year with Garrett, RSH Marketing Director Wes Collins, and Joe and Christy Poteet, who own the Lebanon-based J&C Barbecue.

“Ultimately, Mike (White) just wanted to get the competitors together,” Garrett said. “What he tells people is that the West Coast is not known for barbecue. The goal was to try to put competitors together on the West Coast to create what he calls a barbecue ecosystem. And (Collins) and I said, ‘Hey, we have the name Sweet Home.’ Sweet Home just sounds like the South, like barbecue.

“I just said, ‘Why can’t we build another event that brings tourist dollars to Sweet Home?'” he continued. “That was my passion for it. It would have been a whole lot easier just to do a little private barbecue, and for me to enjoy a lot of barbecue and hang out with some really cool people. But I knew for our community that we should build an event that would help every business possible. To me, that’s the ultimate goal of this whole thing: to help Sweet Home.”

Last year’s event, which took place in April, spanned two days and was invitation-only, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Last year, local businesses raised $12,000 for the event. With more advance notice, that increased to $90,000 this time around.

“Lots of that money was raised from outside of Sweet Home,” Garrett said. “We had everywhere from Eugene, Brownsville, Lebanon, Albany, Portland, Salt Lake City. To me, that’s what’s important: to build it to where Sweet Home’s not paying for the event.

“How many people I’ve already heard that have booked all the rooms up there at some little place up by (Foster Lake) you can book rooms,” he added. “I’ve heard of VRBOs (vacational rental by owner) that I didn’t even know existed in Sweet Home that are being booked up. People are coming as tourists from Seattle, Klamath Falls, and Boise, who have called and reached out saying, ‘We’re flying in for this.’ That’s awesome for Sweet Home.”

As Garrett and other key players look forward to building the Cookoff for the future, they are – at least for now – dreaming big.

“The goal,” he said, “is that this would be something like the Jamboree for Sweet Home.”