SALEM, Ore. - These days, there are always celebrities of sorts at barbecue competitions.
But this past weekend at the Firehouse Cookoff in Woodburn, the most talked-about competitor wasn't a two-legged being slathering sauce on various cuts of meat. It was a metal beast on wheels that held the heat.
Christie Burgess's 18-foot-long smoker was turning heads all day.
"Is that the smoker that was stolen?" one man asked.
Yes, it was. Burgess's smoker was stolen out of her yard, just days before she was scheduled to compete in the Firehouse Cookoff.
Stealing a big smoker is no easy feat.
"It's a big machine, it's not like you can just hide it," Burgess said when the smoker went missing. "It's like trying to steal a frickin' circus tent."
But shortly after the news of the stolen smoker broke, the Marion County Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip and successfully located the machine. It was returned to its rightful owner mere days after it vanished.
On Saturday, Burgess was back where she wanted to be: wearing a cowboy hat and a handkerchief around her neck, bustling back and forth beneath the shade of a tent, slathering sauce onto chickens and slicing up slow-roasted brisket. At the front of the booth, her wife, Whitney Head-Burgess, chatted with visitors.
She and team Lone Star were part of the seventh annual Woodburn Firehouse Cookoff, in which 13 teams from throughout the Willamette Valley went head-to-head, each applying their own particular spices and sauces to earn the coveted prize of best local barbecue.
Restaurant owners and barbecue aficionados stood sweating before their smokers under white tents. Visitors wandered the cleanly trimmed tulip gardens sampling the wares, enjoying the hot sunshine and lively music.
"All proceeds from this go to local charities," said Michael Nelson, who has volunteered at the cook-off for a couple years. "We've given $9,000 in the last six years. At 6 a.m., we lay out all the meat -- beef, pork and chicken. It's all from the same provider, so we try to make it as fair as possible from the start."
Each team takes the meats and spends the afternoon preparing, smoking, roasting and spicing, all before the deadlines to turn in the smoky, sweet samples to the event's six judges.
Prizes are given out for the best of each kind of meat, including a Grand Champion, who wins by earning the highest score. The general public can also pick the People's Choice by dropping money into their chosen booth. Whoever raises the most wins the title, and the money is subsequently donated.
"Originally, the event was all firefighters, which is why it's called the firehouse cook-off," Nelson explained.
"I think it's great," Burgess said. "People have recognized the smoker and been really excited to get it back. It gave everyone a good feeling. People come up and say, you got it back, that's awesome!"
She said having the chance to participate in the cook-off after all that was like "Christmas morning."
"She's beautiful," Burgess said of the machine, busy smoking away at 220 degrees. "She's perfect. I can't even express how happy I am."
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