Wednesday, July 18, 2012

FoodTrek: It Tastes Like Burning!!

The fires are stoked to transform wood into ash-frosted coals containing a searing orange glow from within. Primal shouts ring out as the smell of animal flesh, bubbling with its own fat and skin crackling from the heat of the flame, hits the air. The humans are restless, the insatiable hunger rendering them into protein-starved barbarians. With knives and utensils wielded like warrior sabers, the sound of a iron clang lets loose the mad dogs of war, and a crowd makes a savage dash across a grassy field to ravage the flesh cooked by fire. Is it madness? Is it Sparta? Did Sauron's All-Seeing-Eye cast a spell of chaos upon an otherwise idyllic pasture? No, silly goose, it's Burning Beast 2012. And please remember to separate your compostables from recycleables.

The inferno-soaked feast of the Burning Beast - Photo by Wasabi Prime
A giant elk-like creature (with sizeable burlap gonads, I may add) built out of wood like a Trojan Horse, enveloped in flames, conjures imagery of a blazing Hindenburg, Rome set ablaze with a fiddling Nero in the foreground, or perhaps some bovine karmic payback for Mrs. O'Leary's wayward cow and the whole Chicago Fire-thing. But no, quite the opposite -- Burning Beast is about the most civilized gathering you can get in the name of animal pyrotechnics. I could say "no animals were harmed in the making of this badass-looking finale," but that would be wrong, because many, many, MANY of God's delicious creatures were sacrificed over open fires, cooked out in the middle of Arlington, Washington, at the aptly-titled Smoke Farm. It's a yearly event, now five years running, that gathers many of the Seattle area's top chefs to try their hand at taming the open flame while cooking sustainably-raised animals like cows, pigs, chickens, duck, salmon, and even more exotic fare like goat or bison. Organized by Terra Plata's fantastic chef, Tamara Murphy, she gathers all her cool chef friends for a day out on the farm to build ad hoc fire pits out of cinder blocks, metal grates and a whole lot of dirt-shoveling. Over a dozen different restaurants are in attendance, their pit crews slaving over hot coals all day to cook their beast of choice to smoky perfection, which can be a tricky thing, since fire and coals aren't like a stove where you can set it to a controllable temperature. Guests gather with tents and picnic blankets around the wooden beast to await the savory beasts, and after a mad dash and some standing in lines for platefuls of food, the meat-sated and slightly wine/beer-inebriated crowds cheer like the Vikings of Olde as the Beast is set ablaze and sent to Valhalla to join its bretheren from previous years.

Just another day on the farm - Photos by Wasabi Prime
This was our first Burning Beast. I know -- what-whaaaaat? How could I have not gone to this every single year?! I've tried to attend for the last several years but given the sheer awesomeness of the event, it sells out within hours and I am royally S-O-L-ified. Sadhorns. But not this year, thanks to Twitter giving me the head's up and the Mister's dilligence with trigger-finger ticket buying. The price is a little steep -- 99 smackeroos, but it's all you can eat (at least till they run out), you're sampling the cooking prowess from the Seattle restaurant world's finest, and it goes towards the support of Smoke Farm itself, which is used for different events. They usually put the tickets on sale a month or two before the event, generally held in July, since as everyone knows, summer doesn't officially start in Washington until after the Fourth. Inexplicably, the weekend of Burning Beast is often rainy, causing much frustration with chefs trying to start fires in the middle of a field. There was some rain in the morning, causing a late start for the beast-cooking, but the clouds did a potty dance for the rest of the day and held off its tinkling until after everyone had something to eat.

Il Corvo's epic goat, plus many other meaty offerings - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Vegetarians and vegans hiss in disgust at these sights, without a doubt. It's one part delicious magic and one part scenes from a Grindhouse horror flick. Bodies flayed and splayed across the spit, legs roasting with the hoof still visible, rib cages split like a Xenomorph just jumped out and wished you a Happy Birthday. Aside from the sustainable aspect of the event, it's a way to come to terms with being honestly omnivorous. If you eat meat, it doesn't materialize as the beautifully cut and cleaned pork chop, with just a hint of the bone showing for looks. Meat came from an animal that had to perish in order to grace your plate -- Circle of Life, Simba. So the least we can do is respect its preferably sustainable existence, enjoy every last morsel, and don't you dare put A-1 on that bite. When I was younger, I went through a short phase of not eating meat -- I think everyone does this at least once; college makes you try a lot of ill-conceived things  like beer bongs and hacky-sack. I was eating a chicken wing and it was a particularly sinewy, veiny bugger, so you really got a sense that duh, this came from an animal, you moron. I was skeeved out and stopped eating meat for a short while before the power of pepperoni pizza brought me back into the fold. Oddly, sausage is probably the most terrifying of meats, as it's all the parts you don't want to look in its original state that is then ground up into mysterious bits so as to hide its original identity like some fleshy Witness Protection Program. But you get over idiosyncratic food dislikes when you realize they don't make you interesting, they just make you annoying and appear ignorant to all the rest of your intelligent friends who politely eat whatever is on their plate with an eager spirit of trying something new. The moral of the story: just eat it, Fool, it might taste really good.

Ron Jones' team and their flying pig and... more meat - Photos by Wasabi Prime
On to the Meat-tropolis! Frankly, all of it was amazing, in both smell, smoky flavor and the way an open fire just blesses food with a carbonized kiss of love. Il Corvo had a beautiful whole goat roasting over intense, well-developed coals, with a smoky flavor and all the blessings of cooking meat on the bone over an open fire. Terra Plata gave love to red meat with beefy skewers topped with a tangy-fresh and spicy chimichurri sauce that I enjoyed several times over. The Copper Hog had a beautiful trio of bison, prepared different ways - roasted and cured thinly-slivered slices, paired with a berry sauce to balance out the bison's heady flavor. Pinky's had a whole pig, a gorgeous slow-cooked beast in an emu-like pit, where the meat was escaping from bone when it was done -- I got a great shot of a crispy pig's ear sitting on their cutting board next to a knife, and right as their table opened, they cast the curly tail into the crowd like a wedding bouquet. Skelly and the Bean cooked lamb, doing an herbed-stuffed lamb and minty, tender abondigas -- I particularly loved their cooking setup, as they were roasting a pan of coffee beans below the meat over a flame, so the coffee flavor would perfume the meat. Brilliant.

That duck... what a prick. Let's eat 'em! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Adam's Northwest Bistro and Brewery had a garden of crispy duck. I say a "garden" because the rows of sweet, caramelized duck slowly hand-turned on custom metal spits over a long coal pit was like a Garden of Meatly Delights. They had the one and only "Master Duck Pricker 8000," a clever device of thin metal spikes attached to a wooden handle, to puncture the duck as it roasted, so that the rich fat could baste itself from the inside out, further shellacking the skin to crispy perfection. Tilth and The Golden Beetle had beef shoulder sliced and piled on small, crispy corn cakes and pickled red onion -- addicting, I devoured the combination of flavors and textures. Skillet Street Food had a coconut ginger marinated ram skewer, covered in a spicy sauce of herbs and chilis. I loved that their sign said: "Disclaimer: There will be sinew, tendons and general chewiness. Enjoy!" This could be said for a lot of the more unusual meats. The animal wasn't locked away in some barn or casually grazing in a field -- meat is muscle, and if the animal was running about doing animal-y things, it's still got a bit of kick in the meat itself. God didn't give us teeth to just be knocked out during our weekly Fight Clubs -- work for that meat, dammit. Chewy doesn't necessarily mean bad; there's a lot of flavor in there and you've probably eaten all of that in a hot dog or two, so just chew your food patiently and enjoy.

Meat of al kinds, even on dessert -- and yes, there were vegetables! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It wasn't just land-locked creatures, Staple and Fancy served salmon with a lovely chilled salad -- refreshing after heavy, rich cuts fo animal parts filling my stomach to disturbing levels. The oysters roasted over coals from Taylor Shellfish were the first to be available, so that was probably the most like a Hunger Games tournament come to life, with a flurry of people and sharp objects converging en masse. It was a giant table of shucking tools, hot sauce and lemon wedges, you sidled up to the table through a throng of hungry people, and shucked as many as you could before getting elbowed out of the way. Humans suckling on the oyster teat of life and I knew I'd be cast aside on hind teat, so I just nabbed a few and we cracked 'em open back at our sitting area, no hot sauce or lemon juice needed. Mulleady's Pub supplied the crowds with vegetable sides, or main courses if you were the lone vegetarian daring to attend Burning Beast. I have to say, the ratatouille they made was marvelous -- I could smell the garlic from a distance and it brought me in for a hefty portion. There was a giant table of bread available as well, but we actually brought a loaf that we schlepped back from Roses Bakery on Orcas Island the day before. Even the dessert had meat! Trophy Cupcakes was there with mini versions of their chocolate caramelized bacon bourbon cupcakes, which put my head into a sugar-meat tizzy of goodness. I actually had that first, as I knew they would run out fast (they did) and dammit, who doesn't want to have dessert first?

Many platefuls of food, and the Taylor Shellfish aftermath - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But of course, there's the all-important question: what goes better with meat than booze? Thankfully you are allowed to BYO-Frosty Beverage. I saw people with many different methods of boozeahol-bringing, whether it was the standard cooler with wheels, backpack bladder packs filled with wine, or Nalgene bottles with refreshing hibiscus tea spiked with vodka. This being my first BB, and the weather being temperamental, we kept things easy -- I brought some beers we were saving from the Homebrewers Conference and correctly assumed there would be a bar with drinks available for purchase. The beers were finished quickly. I bought a bottle of Elsom's Cabernet-Merlot blend, which I consumed with much wine-thirst. Luckily with a belly full of meat, this helps absorb the effects of boozeahol quite nicely, so you leave with a happy mood and not face-down in a muddy ditch somewhere. There were also sample drinks served -- Bathtub Gin made some refreshing meat-infused rum punches, which were delicious. Yes, meat-infused, you heard that right. There's no rum punch that a little spiced pork can't help out with a little extra flavor, and don't you forget it! There were also Secret Beverages: Staple and Fancy's fancy watermelon was, in fact, a vessel of drunkenness waiting to be opened, like some Faberge egg of debauchery. Yes, it was a spodi with vodka. They said it was their first time making one, but they clearly have Spodi Jedi Prowess, as the liquor managed to soak all the way out towards the rind. I've never had great luck with these liver bombs, the vodka just pools or soaks into the center and stays there like a molten core of pure hangover. Using a ripe watermelon probably helps -- the one they picked was summer-sweet. They said they used an apple corer to make the initial incision, jammed a funnel in, and then positioned the vodka bottle, giving it a good soak for a day or two. I just loved the fact that their display piece functioned as an edible cocktail. God bless you, Staple and Fancy.

Hey man, I've got a beverage here - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We were very glad to be joined by a couple of Brock's workmates, who were also BB Newbies like us -- I honestly felt like if we didn't have a couple of witnesses, no one would believe this incredible event was real. I wore Brock's gray Runic Games hoodie as an easy identifier if they were looking for us (cel coverage was spotty at best), and it was lightweight and comfy in the summer muggy air. It's not food-related, but it was nice to talk with fellow meat line-waiters about how they can't wait for Torchlight II because they're sick of playing Diablo III. Shameless plug for Runic/Torchlight? You bet, but no one can say I'm not a supportive mate.

Delicious animals sacrificed to the Fire God, and many hungry tummies - Photos by Wasabi Prime 
So what's the verdict on spending nearly a hundred smackeroos a person for platefuls of smoky, delicious meat? Burning Beast, I charge you with being Guilty of Badassery, and I can't wait to go again in 2013, if I can get a ticket. Is this event for everyone? Probably not if you're more of a civilized restaurant-goer and like wearing heels. But even if you are, cowboy up and go, you won't be disappointed. You should be ready for inclement weather, wear clothes you don't mind getting muddy/dirty/greasy, be prepared to sit outside for a couple of hours until the food is ready, and BYO as much as possible, including utensils and plates. They provide paper trays, but be kind and bring washable plates and cups so that the farm isn't littered in a frat party aftermath of red Solo cups. Arlington's a bit of a drive, I noticed several people making a night of it and staying at the Tulalip Casino, which has its own merits if you want to walk in smelling like a campfire and playing craps till 3am. No judgement. As a final sendoff of this Burning Beast 2012 post, I have to display the ceremonial burning of the Beast, appropriately enough with setting his pendulous burlap gonads afire. Let's do this again next year, shall we? Oh, we simply must.

And it burns, burns, burns... the ring of fire... the ring of fire - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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