Burning Beast III: The Beastening
A Report from the World's Best Feast in a Field
photos by duncan smith
"The Beast is on!" John Foss said, stringing silver sardines on a wire over hot coals. He'd arrived for Burning Beast—the annual open-fire meat bacchanal held at Smoke Farm, an hour or so north of Seattle—at three o'clock that morning, driving straight from Ilwaco in order to get the fish from the ocean to people's mouths in fewer than 24 hours. What he found at 3:00 a.m.: festivities going strong with flashlight-illuminated dancing in a field, plenty to drink (and smoke), and Adam Hoffman from Rover's getting his pit-roasted pig started. Chefs know how to party, and Burning Beast brings more than a dozen of Seattle's best, along with their crews, to a campout in the middle of nowhere: You do the math.
Foss conveys seafood to Burning Beast every year—this was year three—as part of his commercial fishing/culinary endeavor Coastal Rovers. He says he's been seeing a lot of sardines on Seattle menus lately, but that they're all imported; his fish were part of his mission to promote local seafood. A middle-of-the-night drive was no big deal. He slept for a couple of hours, then was up at dawn trading oak for alder; later, he built a smoker out of giant sheets of tinfoil, enclosing his hanging sardines in a big shiny cube. When the hordes arrived—Burning Beast sold out 400 tickets at $75 each in a matter of weeks—Foss finished the fish on the grill. A sample was miraculously moist, alder-scented, pretty much perfect pulled off the bones.
The weather was pretty much perfect, too, sunny and almost too hot: ready-made for cold beer or rosé and a metric ton of exceptional barbecue. (People also took walks to the scenic Stillaguamish River, which was shocking when you first got in, then turned out to be exactly the right temperature.) Tamara Murphy—former chef/owner of Brasa, currently of the two Elliott Bay Cafes, soon to be of Terra Plata—organizes Burning Beast as a benefit for Smoke Farm, the amorphous arts entity on more than 300 acres that hosts everything from theater-makers' workshops to tree-fort-building camp for city kids. (The brothers who originally owned the farm were named Smoke.) Murphy had always wanted to go to Burning Man, so she decided to make her own; as an experiment in temporary community, it excels. The chefs get to show off primal-style, each with their own fire pit; the least uptight kind of food-lovers flock and feel lucky to be there; everybody feasts on local, sustainably raised meat in a field and ends up more full (and often more drunk) than they've been in a very long time.
The food this year was better than ever, with attendees hard-pressed to choose favorites. Everyone had just tasted something that you absolutely had to try: the roseate roast-beef open-faced sandwich from John Sundstrom of Lark; the super-moist pork by the Rover's crew (marked "SOME PIG"); surprisingly unheavy "Rabbit-in-Rabbit" (sausage-stuffed loin) with cherry-tomato relish from Seth Caswell of Emmer & Rye; intensely rich moose sausage cooked in a woven latticework of bacon, served with maple syrup, from Zephyr Paquette, also of Elliott Bay Cafe.
Murphy's own chicken was roasted on a spit that rotated via reconfigured bicycle parts; she anointed the birds with her secret barbecue sauce with an applicator of a rag bound to a stick, and served them with tiny corn-bread cakes and outstanding root-beer baked beans. There were also oysters, grilled covered in burlap by seafood superhero Jon Rowley; you shucked them yourself at an ingenious table with oyster knives on chains and a hole in the middle for flinging shells into. There was moist and delicious goat, from Art of the Table's Dustin Ronspies, done Mediterranean-style with quinoa and tzatziki; there was more goat, by Jason Wilson of Crush (it was a little dry). There was lamb, grilled splayed out like a big lamby butterfly; there was bison. There were 14 kinds of grilled meat. The big tablesful of grilled vegetables—corn and carrots, this and that—were not especially popular.
As stomachs filled and reflection on the bounty began to supplant gorging, two works of meat were mentioned more than any others. A crew of dilettante chefs from Jones Glassworks, who cook at Burning Beast every year for reasons that remain unclear, pulled ahead of the (way more experienced) pack with their pork belly served on little Chinese-style buns. (They'd made the buns themselves over Fourth of July weekend, then preserved them in an apparent miracle of freezing.) And people went completely bananas over the spicy, fatty, objectively fantastic duck. The duck was served with clove-heavy watermelon pickles and corn bread with truffle butter—and, if you were there at the right time, a single Frito, a curious yet tasty pairing—all made by another dark-horse team, Garrett Abel and Tessa Schultz from Pike Place specialty market DeLaurenti. (No dark horse was served, and despite repeated rumors, PETA once again failed to appear. New this year: a ban on dogs, which tended to find lots of leftovers and then barf.)
There was no dessert except the sweet relief of a too-loud zydeco band finishing its set and some soul music coming through the sound system. As the day-trippers set out to drive home, those who were camping—staying over is encouraged—set out to drink more, watch trapeze artists on a freestanding apparatus, have water-balloon fights, and play cornhole (a large-scale version of bean-bag toss that appears to be the official sport of Burning Beast).
After dusk, the beast was set ablaze while Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" blasted. The beast—a 20-foot-tall wooden effigy of a goat—was created by poet/Smoke Farm stalwart Arne Pihl (who said his favorite meat was "the monkey-fed cobra wrapped in Komodo dragon"). A secret Roman candle made the burning of the beast's behind very exciting, and people danced and ran in circles with sparklers and generally freaked out with a surfeit of happiness. After the beast finally fell, the party went on.
This article has been updated since its original publication.