Blazing Cattle

“Tickets go on sale in May,” says the Burning Beast Facebook page.

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By the time the ticket-holding public entered Burning Beast, 200 pounds of beef had been taken from the rebar-and-steel cross and were resting quietly (as dead animals tend to do) on the table. One kind of chaos ended as a new one crouched at the starting line. 600-plus people stood ready to descend on the beef and other roasted carcasses strewn around the field. The previous night at dinner Tamara Murphy, seminal Seattle chef and founder of Burning Beast, said to the participating chefs, “We come out for a great party, and then afterward, all these people show up.” To the public eye, Burning Beast is a Sunday afternoon distraction, a chance to sample open-fire cooking by some of the Northwest’s best chefs in the shadow of a large wooden beast, which burns down at the end of the evening. The annual event, a fundraiser for Smoke Farm (the non-profit educational and arts center where it is held) sells out of $100 tickets in a matter of minutes (17 this year, to be exact). To those great chefs, Burning Beast is an open invitation to indulge in a weekend that is as far from a restaurant kitchen as tempeh salad is from bone-in ribeye for two: wide open space, unrestricted flames, large whole animals, and all the time in the world.

Chef Mike Easton is a genius. He is the kind of genius who, with his weekday-lunch only restaurant, Il Corvo, runs a kitchen without sacrificing time with his daughter. A genius that serves pasta so good it would shame the apron strings off a nonna. (Possibly not a genius because, at $9 a bowl, he’s charging only half what places do that are half as good). But perhaps he needs to get out a little more. As he ran through the wet grass of what would later become the event’s parking lot taking swigs of his homemade amaro, barely visible in the thick late-night mist, he shouted to one of the cooks, “This is the most fun we’ve had since Bryan’s wedding, when Carl pissed on my pillow!”

When Mike invited me to “embed” with his team of cooks for Burning Beast, I laughed. It sounded like I was going to war, tagging along to Afghanistan with battle-hardened soldiers. In reality, I was about to head to chef summer camp. “I look forward to this as one of the best weekends of the year,” he told me, arriving at Smoke Farm on Saturday afternoon. I first met Mike when he opened Il Corvo, his temple of pasta, in the Pike Place Market two years before. I stumbled on it during the soft opening week and ate there everyday until the real opening, knowing that once the doors truly opened, I’d have to battle crowds for a meal that good. Now I would get to spend 36 hours learning how the man behind the pasta worked.

My arrival midday on Saturday was like those awkward first moments of summer camp. I was introduced to my “cabin:” four cooks from Il Corvo who were to help out with the thirty-hour event. Unlike camp, the awkwardness was quickly cured with the proffering of one-liter mugs of beer. Right away the crew got to work: four of them digging a pit, and one making sure the keg was properly tapped. Beer steins were filled as fast as they were drained (with the speed of a fraternity pledge). Someone asked a question about how the pit should be shaped. “Whatever,” Mike responded, waving his hand in apathy “Once we have a raging fire, it’ll all be okay.”

The packing list of the group read like what a modern-day Hunter S. Thompson would have packed if Fear and Loathing were headed to Napa, not Vegas: One quarter-keg of Trumer Pils, a case of vinho verde, a bottle of cachaça and another of homemade amaro, a flask full of rye, a box of Underberg, a variety of cigars, including some of the marijuana variety (hey, it’s legal here, kids), six crabs (freshly caught, with clarified butter for dipping), a few pounds of smelt, a couple of sardines, a slab of bacon, a few chickens, three pies, a bag of good coffee beans, a Japanese hand grinder, and an Aeropress. Not including the food and supplies necessary for the preparation of the actual dish they would be making for Sunday afternoon’s main event.

By three in the afternoon, the pit was dug, cinder blocks arranged, and Mike and his crew were on to engineering. Not to come off sexist or stereotyping, but there is nothing guys like to do more than stand around, holding beers, theorizing about how something does work, could work, will work, or, in this case, won’t work. To be sexist and stereotyping it was totally hot. The beast-cooking contraption and recipe were loosely adapted from the book Seven Fires. The metal was custom fabricated by a local company called Online Metal (what else?). The original assembly included a stationary wooden pole with a ring on it where the square steel piece was supposed to fit in and rotate. They tested the rig by jumping on it, figuring their weight wasn’t too far off what the cow would come in at.

Lips were pursed, beards (or lack there of) were stroked thoughtfully, and, at last, it was decided: the square peg was not going to rotate in the round hole. “It’s three parts camping, two parts sailing, and one part cooking,” Mike said of the cooking station assembly. He thought there might be an issue, so he surfaced four pairs of heatproof welding gloves and made the decision to simply flip the 200-pound cow, strapped on to two pieces of rebar and a giant steel cross, by hand every hour or so of the cooking. But the cooking, of the cow at least, was still a long way away. First, another snafu: the heatproof wire rope, part of the pulley system to lower and raise the animal over the fire, was too thin. The cook who’d spent the least time at the keg was dispatched to the nearest Cabela’s (outdoor-equipment store), 30 minutes away, to find stronger rope. The rest of us went for a swim. Teach that young’un to stay sober at an event like this. For a ten-minute walk, the reward was a lazy 20-minute float down the refreshingly chilly mountain river.

Back at the site, as we set up tents and cracked the vinho verde, the roar of a refrigerated truck rumbling across the grass field interrupted the peaceful hubbub. All around the huge field, people stopped working on their sites and looked up as the truck lurched over the rough ground. A little kid walked by, selling ukulele songs. “Normally I charge 15 cents, but today, free.” The truck rolled noisily to a stop in front of our site. Mike requested a 200-pound animal. When he pulled it from the truck, he guessed the weight at 190, though the seller reported it to as 220. As the night went on and the participants’ rabble-rousing got less coherent, every rumor further exaggerated the size. “I hear there’s a 400 pound cow down there!” “What animal are you cooking—you’re not on the 600 pound cow, are you?”

The beef was laid atop a temporary bed of a table checkerboarded with oversized cutting boards, since the fire pit it would later occupy was otherwise indisposed with snacks. Clarified butter heated up, a warm dip for the cool cooked crabs. Tiny smelt were next for a spot on the grill. Passers-by (other chefs and their crews, finished setting up their stations) paused to judge the pie-off the cooks had initiated: soupy but good blueberry, a solid boysenberry, and Mike’s sugar-on-sugar Aztec pie (dulce de leche layered with sweetened-condensed milk). Contests like this have no losers. Things started to wind down at nearly nine PM—dinnertime.

It was a glutton’s wet dream, a sea of staff meals, laid end to end for forty feet: a buffet table set up by a bunch of chefs doing their damndest to outdo each other. I watched more than one person dig a spoon deep in to the cilantro butter, thinking it was a salad or dip. It was actually meant for the grilled corn whose husks were tied neatly in to a handle with a bow—to clarify, that was different than the grilled corn whose foil packet kept it cuddled tightly to the bacon and jalapeños with which it shared the aluminum tent. I forwent the myriad pasta salads (carbs are just filler) in favor of getting to the salmon faster. By the time I was at meat end of the spread, I couldn’t even identify one animal from another: shortribs, lamb, is that turkey? A gravy boat sat in the general vicinity of a giant hock of unknown provenance, but it was both lost and unnecessary among the high stacks of animal, a rich sauce rendered obsolete by strong roasted flavors.

Sitting down at one of the picnic tables, a stray bottle of whiskey seemed unable to find its owner. I adopted it as I conversed with an old friend, John. Known as Johnny Fishmonger, he generally hides behind the scenes, working to bring lesser-known seafood that is more sustainable to the surface (pun intended), organizing events like a herring festival he helped put on in Sausalito, California. Today, he’s driven up from Astoria, Oregon, with a trunk full of Sardines. Only the car his friend had borrowed from a girlfriend broke down, and he sat at a Safeway, icing down the little fish for part of the day, waiting for another friend to come and get him. I marvel at my glimpse into another world. I’ve never iced down sardines in a grocery store parking lot—or any other fish.

Darkness set in—sundown is still pretty late in these parts. Around ten-thirty, realizing they’d missed their one deadline—split the beef open and get it hung up before dusk—Mike’s team of cooks set to work by flashlight, splaying the animal out like a giant spatchcocked chicken. Someone sliced off the tenderloins and threw them onto a grill over the fire’s final coals. They lifted the animal onto the roasting apparatus. Everyone got quiet for a second, and even the noise from the party-hardy chefs at stations nearby seemed to fade out for a moment. Creee—eeek went the metal and wood, adjusting under the weight of the animal like an old couch. The sound of splintering wood was brief, just enough time to scare me, but it was just getting used to holding up the enormous animal, whole but for its head, which apparently it is not legal to sell in this state. Marijuana, yes, cow’s head, no. Hope your idea of munchies doesn’t involve cow eyeball tacos.

The beef was up. All that was left to do was cook it. It was close to midnight. Mike sliced up the tenderloin, and we snacked while lighting cigars and taking swigs of the homemade Amaro Vittoria (named for Mike’s wife, Victoria). Chefs from other restaurants stationed around the field wandered by for a glimpse of the beast, a bite from the cutting board, a swig from the bottle. More than one pumped forlornly at the keg, long since dead.

Four short hours after I crawled into the relative comfort of my tent, I woke up to the sound of fire being lit. I stumbled out. Some people light their fires with lighter fluid. Mike Easton lights his with olive oil. Mike and one of the cooks had flipped the beast vertically since I’d last seen it: it would now meet the fire face (or lack thereof) down. The fire started to roar, and this being a chilly Pacific Northwest morning, nothing sounded better than that. Mike brought a few logs from the main fire to the side to do a test batch of the pan de chapa, Argentinean bread, with which the meat would be served. I snuggled a camp chair deep between the two fires, and watched the meat, which barely seemed to be close enough to the flames to encounter any heat.

Mike took a slug of the vinho verde and neatened up the campsite from yesterday’s brouhaha. Crab detritus mingled with beef juices, and only the crispness of the morning air kept the area from smelling like the dumpster of a Kitchen Nightmares’ reject. Chalk one up for the benefits of outdoor partying: lots of room for the smell to dissipate. By six, someone had woken the reps from Caffe Vita, and a sleepy barista was manning the espresso cart parked in the old dairy barn on the property. The chefs of Burning Beast might be willing to rough it a bit for a good cause and a great party, but a coffee cart is essential for the long hours involved with whole-animal cookery.

The morning yawned before us—and we yawned back, watching a slab of bacon slowly drip fat onto the coals below. We tided ourselves over for the breakfast bacon with the final nibbles of pie. The crew got ready to engineer the first spin of what would need to be done every two hours: rotate the animal, an all-hands-on-deck affair.

Eyes rubbed, camp chairs kicked out of the way, and heatproof gloves donned, four strong men each grabbed one of the corners of the H-shaped rebar. A fifth crew member knelt to hammer the bottom ring off the rig, then quickly shifted gears to keep the ropes untangled while the other four flipped the cow horizontally, before slipping the ring back around the bottom of the pole. As complicated as that might be to read, it was many times more so to watch, and having watched, I’d surmise it was yet more confusing to do. Once flipped, the meat was brushed with a red wine and pepper sauce before the crew went back to what they did best: eating and drinking.

The final dregs of bacon were still melting on a grate when the first of the chickens stole my cozy spot between the fires. Hiding in the shadow of the beef, they were cooked slowly, endlessly, as professional cooks choose to do when released from the strict time constraints of the restaurant kitchen. When the strings of sardines were hung over the top of the beef, criss-crossing the campfire, we’d reached peak deliciousness: a four-beast fire.

The beef-flipping quickly becoming routine, the pit long-since built, the river floated, and the pie judged, it was time for a new activity. Enter knot-tying contests. I said it was like summer camp, right? The one-handed bowline knot is what one might use, should they, say, have fallen off a cliff and be holding onto the cliff with one hand when someone tosses them a rescue rope. When two people each attempt to tie the knot simultaneously from opposite ends of a taut rope, the first one to finish can lean back, not only demonstrating his knot0tying superiority, but also snapping the rope down tightly, capturing the slower man’s hand in his own knot. A game with a prize of gloating for the winner, pain for the loser, and endless hours of entertainment for onlookers still sipping vinho verde. The day lazed back and forth, from knots to fire to meat and back again, like the s-curves on the nearby river, until Mike said the magic words.

“I think it’s done.” The hypnotist had snapped his fingers, and suddenly this summer camp cabin had KP duty. The beef was put back onto the checkered cutting boards to rest. A thousand round, pita-like pan de chapa rotated on and off a small offshoot of the morning’s previously powerful fire. Chimichurri was stirred back to life, having been made a few days ago at the restaurant. For all the excitement along the way, Mike did the final butchering with little fanfare. First a quick cut to check for doneness, then divide and conquer. Meat was sorted, some parts still rare, others on the precipice of being over done. In the flurry of carnivores to come, it would hardly matter. I kept my eye on the heart, stashed off to the side.

When everything was set up, camp was torn down, neatened up, all evidence of a good party swept out of sight of Burning Beast’s paying customers—all of whom thought they were the ones at the party. When the last sardine was snapped off the line where it was smoking, the final cigar butt swept under a cinder block, the gates opened and in came the crowds, oblivious to the hard work and good times that had gone into the meal they were about to enjoy.

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Comments

  1. I have alwaysalwaysalways wanted to go to Burning Beast — maybe this year I’ll chance it and go! Great read. xo

  2. Jennifer Johnson says:

    Loved this, Naomi – and lucky you to embed with such a talented team! Burning Beast remains my favorite “holiday” of the year and I lament the lack of such a thing here in Maine!