Icebox Cookoff in Sweet Home returns with barbecue

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Barbecuing might be a Fourth of July weekend staple, but Sweet Home will take it to the next level again with 38 pro barbecue teams from around the country at this year’s Icebox Cookoff, which runs Friday through Sunday, June 30 to July 2, at Radiator Supply House 1460 47th Ave.

The event is open to the public beginning at 3 p.m. June 30 and 1 p.m. July 1 and features live music and a 10 p.m. Saturday fireworks show.

Not to mention, of course, some of the finest, most delicious fare in the mid-Willamette Valley. And although the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Steak Cooking Association will distribute awards on Sunday, which is devoted to sponsors and volunteers, the public gets an earlier say, voting Friday and Saturday for its favorites by purchasing five food tokens, which amounts to one voting token. An entire steer will be barbecued over an open fire, as part of live-fire cooking at 3 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday.

“I’m not aware of that ever being done in the Northwest, from what I’ve been told,” Icebox Cookoff organizer Will Garrett said.

In addition to the steer, hogs, Barbados rams, alligators and mountain lions constitute other open-fire fare, overseen by some 12 to 15 cooks from all over the country.

Most competing teams hail from West Coast states like Washington, Idaho, Utah, California and Nevada. A handful of Oregonians will be participating as well.

Garrett isn’t shy when it comes to his Cookoff expectations.

“It will be the best barbecue the West Coast has ever seen,” he said, noting that Oregon’s next biggest event – the BBQ, Blues & Brews on the Bay in Coos Bay – struggles to field 25 teams.

And it’s made possible by the local community.

“What [they have] done coming together for this event is Sweet Home, right?” Garrett quipped. “It’s amazing. We realized we needed well over 100 volunteers to put this event on, and Sweet Home stepped up. My phone’s just going off nonstop, and people are stopping by with ‘How can we help?’ That’s pretty special about our community.”

“This thing has become known as the biggest competition on the West Coast,” he continued, looking to the future. “So whether I continue it or give it to somebody else to continue or whatever, the momentum is here to take this to the next level. We just have to make a decision on what that’s going to be.”

This year, meanwhile, patrons won’t be wanting for a soundtrack to go with their heaping plates. Friday’s live-music slate features the Eddyville Band at 3:30 p.m., followed by the Jessie Leigh Band at 7. Saturday’s schedule includes the Nikki Jones Band at 1 p.m., the Gabriel Cox Band at 4 and the KOZ Band at 7.

Public Cookoff parking will be available at the Sweet Home Rodeo Grounds, 4001 Long St., and shuttle buses will transport patrons to and from the event.

Garrett’s quite a barbecue aficionado himself, with plenty of shared accolades to his credit. He helped lead the Salem-based Best Damn BBQ Sauce team to a first-place Mild Tomato award at the 2018 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Sauce Competition in Kansas City.

In 2021, his squad took second at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship in Lynchburg, Tenn., and finished third in the National BBQ and Grilling Association’s mustard- and tomato-spicy barbecue categories.

Last year, the group’s tomato sauce placed third at the Memphis in May International Festival World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The team fared better at the same event this year, claiming first in its Anything But Poultry competition, second in ribs and third in Anything But Turkey Smoke.

The Best Damn BBQ Sauce team, of course, will be competing at the Icebox Cookoff. But it’s safe to say Garrett has other commitments. His teammates will have to wield tongs without him.

“I wish I could do a little cooking this weekend,” he said. “But I have my hands full hosting this event.”