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They're Smokin'

Smoked salmon is the latest Southern Oregon specialty to spawn a culinary festival.

The Southern Oregon Smoked Salmon Festival is set to debut Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Britt Festivals grounds in Jacksonville. A salmon-smoking competition headlines the event — a benefit for Medford’s Maslow Project — along with beer, wine and food sales, live music and kids’ activities.

“I smoke salmon in my backyard,” says organizer Ted Trujillo, 37, of Jacksonville. “It’s a tradition that a lot of people embrace.”

Fourteen cooks will vie for smoked-salmon supremacy, says Trujillo. Although a few hail from as far as Portland and Bend, the majority are Rogue Valley residents with a wide range of cooking expertise. A $1,000 cash prize is at stake for first place; $500 and $200 will go to second and third place, respectively.

“This is something we can build an identity on,” says festival judge Hilary Kemmling, general manager of Frau Kemmling Schoolhaus Brewhaus, which hosts its own gastronomic bash, Oktoberfest, every September.

The region’s identity as a salmon-fishing mecca inspired Trujillo and friend Frank Kukla, a Maslow volunteer. Banking on the nationwide popularity of barbecue competitions, the two envisioned a cooking contest more closely aligned with Southern Oregonians’ passions and pastimes.

“We got rivers everywhere,” says Trujillo, who moved to the area in 2005 with his wife, Sarah, a Medford native. “We’re spotlighting what we have here.”

Local, artisan cheeses, breads, beer and wine will complement the salmon. A $20 ticket buys five tastes each of food and beer or wine. Additional items can be purchased from vendors, including smoked salmon prepared by Jacksonville’s Bella Union restaurant. Samples of salmon smoked for competition will be available to anyone who signs the event’s waiver, a safeguard simply because the fish is prepared in advance in unregulated home kitchens, says Trujillo.

Few rules govern the competition, other than the requirement to divide 3 pounds of fish into 3-ounce portions for judging and sampling, says Trujillo. Salmon will be judged on taste, texture, aroma, appearance and smoke quality.

“It’s something we’re all familiar with,” says festival judge Chris Dennett, owner of Elements Tapas Bar in Medford.

Cooks can employ any ingredients, as well as any technique for preparing fresh or frozen salmon. Photos furnished to festival organizers verify the entrant’s advance efforts, says Trujillo. Some photos can be seen at the festival website, www.southernoregonsmokedsalmonfest.com.

A fan of dry-brining and Little Chief brand smokers, Trujillo often purchases his fish for smoking. For each claimant of the best home-smoked salmon, he says, is a neighbor with the same boast, in addition to someone down the street who toots the same horn.

“There’s only one way to prove that,” says Trujillo.

Conceiving the competition with Kukla over cold beers one weekend last spring, Trujillo says he doesn’t know of any smoked-salmon festivals with the scope of this one. The event is the latest to join Southern Oregon’s roster of food- and beverage-themed fetes, including the Oregon Cheese Festival and Battle of the Bones, both in Central Point, the Oregon Chocolate Festival and Ashland Culinary Festival, both in Ashland, Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival in Jacksonville and Medford Beer Week, which Dennett devised four years ago to draw crowds to Medford’s downtown.

Given the region’s growing reputation for fine food and drink, epicurean celebrations stand to grow, as well, says Dennett, whose restaurant recently represented Medford’s dining scene at Feast Portland.

“It has enough of a head of steam to be able to support these different types of festivals,” says Dennett. “They’ll grow kind of organically.”

And the smoked-salmon festival, he adds, has emerged as one of the only competitions with a level playing field for professional and home cooks.

“It’s kind of an interesting way to bridge the gap,” says Dennett.

Bridging the gap for local homeless families is one goal of the festival, which has pledged all profits to Maslow, a nonprofit organization that provides basic needs, crisis intervention, advocacy, street outreach and support services.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Mail Tribune illustration / Bob Pennell