Burning Beast: Local woman goes meat camping

Columnist experiences bacchanalian meat-lovers picnic in Arlington, Wash.

Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009

Last weekend I found myself sitting on a straw bale next to a 20-foot tall goat built of scrap wood, contemplating the flexibility of the trapeze artist I was watching.

Courtesy Of Ginny Mahar
Courtesy Of Ginny Mahar

A ring of fire filled the air with the smell of apple wood smoke and roasting meat. Lamb simmered in clay pots. A giant cast iron skillet caught the drippings from an Argentinean-style beef roast. An entire pig rotated on a spit, its amber skin continually mopped with coconut water.

No, I wasn't dreaming. I was at Burning Beast, a bacchanalian meat-lovers picnic with a slightly medieval flare. Head honch and organizer Tamara Murphy (chef and owner of Seattle restaurant Brasa) has put on the gathering annually for three years now.

"I always wanted to go to Burning Man," Murphy said of her stroke of inspiration. It never worked out that she could attend the famous art-centered, desert gathering, so she decided, "We'll just make our own Burning Man."

Burning Beast is held in Arlington, Wash., about an hour's drive north of Seattle, on the 360-acre hideaway called Smoke Farm (www.smokefarm.org). Although the former dairy farm eludes typical definition, its owners have offered it as a gathering place for artists, craftspeople, writers and the like to come and create.

Chef Tamara Murphy has had a friendship with the people at Smoke Farm for nearly 15 years, and it was their support that allowed Burning Beast to come to fruition. Symbiotically, the nonprofit event gives its proceeds back to support the farm.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I decided at my sister's request to join her at Burning Beast, but with a handful of Seattle's best chef's cooking over open flame, how could I go wrong?

Tickets cost $75, which included festival access and all you can eat. Guests were welcome to wander the farm, swim in the river, and camp overnight. This year there were three bands, a late-night DJ and a reasonably priced bar.

Although all 400 tickets sold out, the event never felt crowded. During the day, chefs tended their beasts over fires and buried in earth ovens, and were more than happy to chat or answer questions about what exactly they were doing.

Around 6 p.m., the dinner bell rang. Each of about 10 stations was ready to serve up steaming portions of food. Many guests, as encouraged by the organizers, brought their own plates and cutlery to reduce waste.

I tried a chili-infused goat stew called Birria, from the Jalisco region of Mexico. I hit the spit-roasted pig station, served Balinese style with rice and a lemongrass chutney. I noshed on a mini-baguette filled with smoked rabbit and pickled carrots. At Tamara Murphy's station I tasted her fall-apart pork, which had cooked underground all night, and had the good fortune of getting a small piece of the crispy, salty skin. Perfectly charred rotisserie chicken was served with a refreshing cucumber relish, and Matt Dillon, of Sitka and Spruce, served up a beautiful and delicately flavored lamb stew.

As luck would have it, I had my first taste of an Alaskan delicacy at a station marked "Heads," where John Foss grilled up split sockeye salmon heads from Alaska's Naknek Family Fisheries.

"Make sure you try the cartilage behind the eye," he said, pulling a head from the flames and placing it in my mess bowl.

I took his advice. The white gelatinous spoonful was soft and viscous and reminiscent of bone marrow-rich and full of the animal's essence.

It was soon after the salmon head station that I hit a meat wall, and spent the next couple hours glazed over and watching the 20-foot tall goat burn down. I missed out on the geoduck tacos and the vegetable station, and slept through the dance party that began after the second-winders had recovered from our "burning feast", but it was worth it.

As quite possibly the most far-travelled guest, I hope I represented the meat lovers of Alaska well. I thought of home the whole time I was there (maybe it was the rain) and dreamed that night of what "Southeast Beast" might look like ... Salmon heads, Sitka Black Tail Deer, Pickled Bull Kelp, and Fireweed Jam on Sourdough Bread. For now I'm back to a life of meat moderation, but for one indulgent day, I heartily enjoyed the celebration of Burning Beast.

• Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.



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