Burning Beast: A Festival that Celebrates the Whole Animal, Sustainably

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Sometimes enlightenment comes in the form of a lamb taco. This summer marked my second pilgrimage to Burning Beast, a festival that brings together meat lovers and sustainably raised meat, and which now holds a permanent spot on my annual calendar. After my first year in attendance, I described Burning Beast as a, “bacchanalian meat-lovers picnic,” which is true, in part.

This year, however, my experience of the event tapped into a much deeper level than simple meat-love.

Burning Beast is the three-year-old brainchild of Chef Tamara Murphy, of Seattle’s Elliot Bay Cafe. Each July, Murphy gathers a handful of Seattle’s best chefs and pairs them with sustainably raised “beasts.” The chefs cook outdoors, in a big field at Smoke Farm in Arlington, Wash., using only wood fire and various contraptions of steel, cinder block or bricks.

The scene is artsy and medieval. Folk musicians play and sing, aerialists and trapeze artists swing above the crowd. In center field sits a 20-foot-tall wooden goat, which is ceremoniously burned after the meal. A pig steams in an earth oven, a flock of chickens spin on a rotisserie turned by bicycle pedals, a whole goat is splayed and wired to a steel frame, where it hangs over a smoking bed of coals. All day long the air is filled with the chop-licking aromas of fire-roasting meats and the flavorful smoke of apple, hickory and peach wood.

In addition to meats, there are sea creatures and vegetables, nearly all of which are local and sustainably harvested. Once finished, the foods are crafted into fine creations using the broad palette of flavors familiar to Seattle chefs: smoked rabbit banh mi, lamb tacos with roasted chili and tomato salsa, ballotines of moose meat wrapped in bacon and filled with maple- and blueberry-infused sausage. Guests are asked to bring their own plates and utensils, and when the dinner bell rings they line up for three-bite portions from each chef, bouncing from station to station. It is juicy, delicious meat poetry.

While giving her welcome speech, Murphy said something that forever changed the way I view not just Burning Beast, but the local-sustainable movement. The animals we had been watching roast all day, which many of us were seeing for the first time in whole form, had come from small, local farmers and ranchers. This event, she said, is really about using the whole animal, because if we want the availability of better meat, we need to support the small farmers and ranchers who raise it.

Murphy later explained that these small producers provide meat within a completely different system than the industrial meat empire. She personally has the, “privilege and opportunity” to buy from two small local farms. As she put it, “When the lamb is ready, the lamb is ready, and they need to sell the whole animal. You can’t just order a case of lamb racks every two weeks.” Murphy knows what she’s talking about, having raised, slaughtered and prepared her own pig.

At this point in our changing food system, one of the best things consumers can do is adapt to the needs of the people trying to bring us better animal proteins. Thinking about buying meat in bulk (as in whole, half, or quarter animals), and learning to cook every part of the animal are key to ensuring our own “privilege and opportunity” to buy better meat.

By doing so, consumers can confidently purchase meat from members of their communities who are dedicated to the health of the land, the animals and each other.

Writer, poet and chef Ginny Mahar currently resides in Missoula, Montana. When she’s not busy freelancing or posting on her blog, Food-G, you can find her in the mountains, earning her calories.