Five Hours of Waffling
Burning Beast Doesn't Care if It Rains
It was a downright Octobery day for Burning Beast 2011, which took place last Sunday, July 17. In accordance with this year's nonsummer, the fourth edition of the world's best feast in a field was a wet one, though the rain did hold off until pretty much exactly when Seattle's greatest chefs served their multifarious meats off the grills. Attendees lined up at the various canopied meat-stations, oblivious to the near-downpour ensoddening their paper plates and their person, undeterred in their meat-mission: to taste all 15 kinds of flesh or explode trying. Someone said it had a M*A*S*H aspect to it: the tentage across the field, the drifting clouds of smoke, the people intent on their work heedless of the doomy cloud cover. It is in poor taste to compare a $99-per-person dining event (even one with "uneven ground, open flame, sharp and heavy objects, trip hazards, noxious plants, wildlife, and many other hazards") to war; however, this was a comparison to a TV show about war, and it was somewhat apt.
Burning Beast takes place at and benefits Smoke Farm, a center for arts and philosophy and helping-kids-build-tree-houses and other miscellaneous goodnesses on a former dairy farm an hour north of Seattle. (The name predates the smoky Burning Beast benefit; the brothers who originally owned the farm had the surname Smoke.) This year, the Beast sold out in three days, and despite the inclement weather—it was raining hard in Seattle about the time most people were getting on the road—there were only about 25 no-shows among 400 ticket buyers. Truthfully, no one—the chefs, the musicians of "Awesome," the children, the normal people, and the well-hung, 25-foot-high wooden moose that was the Beast's spirit animal this year—seemed to even notice the occasional spits and one big shower of rain (though Maria Hines, of Tilth and Golden Beetle, did get her car stuck in the mud). It was kind of impressive and kind of eerie, as if the minds of all were being controlled by meat.
In the afternoon, there was strolling about and drinking of beer and wine while admiring the chefs' setups and the meats cooking therein or -on. The indefatigable Tamara Murphy—event organizer, guiding force of the Elliott Bay Cafes, and chef/owner of the (finally) forthcoming Terra Plata on Capitol Hill—won all the style points with a veritable sculpture for cedar-planking salmon that she welded herself (including a crown of little metal figurines of a rooster, pig, bunny, etc.). Paul Hyman, formerly of Portland and now chef of Bin on the Lake in Kirkland, had a rotisserie fail, so he improvised a shiny tinfoil smokehouse, complete with smoke coming from a chimney on its pitched roof. (The lamb he cooked inside it, served with a sorrel yogurt sauce, was judged to be "like butter." He wore a T-shirt that read "MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB AND I ATE IT WITH MINT SAUCE.") Coastal Rovers' John Foss had the most numerous, shiniest, and tiniest fish—West Coast anchovies—and also had the most work beheading each one and stringing them for hanging over coals. On the vegetable front, a big bin of corn on the cob rotated over an open fire.
Jon Rowley, hero of sustainable seafood (as well as obscure species of strawberry), jumped the gun and started serving fire-steamed Taylor Shellfish Farms oysters early, reinforcing his hero status among the hungry crowd. Word spread across the field—the oysters are up!—and a feeding frenzy ensued at the shuck-them-yourself table (where no injuries were reported, despite sharp shells and dulled dexterities). Asked if he had done something special to make them taste so good, Rowley replied laconically: "Heat."
Next up—also ahead of the official 6:00 p.m. serving time, prompted by a slowly forming, thirsty mob—the good people of Belltown bar Bathtub Gin debuted Burning Beast's first-ever cocktail stand, serving pork-infused cocktails. (They also had one bottle of habushu, Japanese liquor with a whole snake embalmed in it—see the slide show online for exciting and/or horrifying photographic proof.) A French 75, made with prosciutto-infused gin and garnished with a bit of the meat and a sprig of rosemary, converted a confirmed gin-hater with its nuanced salty-hammy taste ("That changes everything," the man said, looking up to the clouds above). The cachaça/Campari/chorizo/pineapple drink was described somewhat unfairly by a Bathtub Gin bartender as "the mean one"—its spicy heat was not without subtlety, and it brought to mind what Dorothy Parker once said: "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me."
Then the meat happened. To prevent initial stampedes, attendees' tickets directed them to "Begin with the SWINE" or another kind of beast, and the rule-abiding sort complied. After everyone acquired their first course—portions overall were arguably too large—they ate it while in line for their second. The rain began in earnest at the skirmish stage, where attendees urgently consulted friends and strangers alike about what they'd eaten that should not be missed, pointing and striding purposefully across the increasingly muddy grass.
The things that people told other people not to miss: the goat on pita made by Ethan Stowell of Tavolàta, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, etc. (Stowell and company later shared grilled goat testicles with the curious.) The grilled pheasant and Belgian waffles from Garrett Abel (DeLaurenti), served with pheasant demi-glace, peaches pickled with juniper berries and black peppercorns, strawberry-rhubarb compote, balsamic bing cherries, and highly potent bourbon Rainier cherries. (They made the waffles the day before—"five hours of waffling"—and reheated them on the grill.) The Asian-style barbecued beef sandwich by Angie Roberts of BOKA. The extraordinarily light and crisp naan (from a 700-degree custom-made gas-fired tandoor to your mouth in 10 seconds, if you lurked around) and perfect chickpeas (a recipe from Vij's in Vancouver) and very good chicken from Ron Jones of Jones Glassworks. ("We've got a lot more time on our hands than the real chefs," Jones said.) And the miracle of the rosemary/lemon zest/garlic/etc. braised goat, served over polenta with a garnish of fried rosemary, made by Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita) and Maria Hines. "It really does build you up from the inside, that little dish, when you're out here in the shit," someone said. It won Best of Beast, the inaugural audience-juried award; Smith and Hines quibbled sweetly over who deserved the handsome ram's skull trophy, then held it for photographs. Somewhere among all the meat, the rain stopped, and the skies partly cleared.
Then the giant wooden moose (and, nearly, its maker, Arne Pihl) was sacrificed by fire to "Runnin' with the Devil." And there was dancing. And the Beast was good.
This article has been updated since its original publication.