Why would anyone in his or her right mind eat haggis—this seemingly fowl concoction consisting of sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal’s stomach for approximately three hours?
Tradition of course! And, as it turns out, it’s kind of tasty.
Monday, January 25, was the 251st birthday of poet Robert Burns, so naturally I hosted a Burns Supper. What’s a Burns Supper you might ask? A Burns Supper is an annual Scottish tradition—a bit like an American Thanksgiving meets a secular Passover. I’m not Scottish (though my great grandmother—aka, Supernana—was from Glasgow), but my wife Kate is from Edinburgh, so as a tribute to her and her homeland, I embarked on a massive three-day culinary undertaking, which nearly killed me.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
My kitchen, however, was full of pots of food—including a pot of mashed potatoes so large that it began to push itself up out of the pot like a rogue stick of deodorant or renegade soufflé—that people just couldn’t help but help themselves and graze.
The meal began with Cock-a-Leekie soup: a simple chicken soup made with leeks, rice, and oddly enough—prunes. I made the same soup last year at my Burns Supper and found it entirely unremarkable, but then relied on the disclaimer that the food was not supposed to taste very good, after all, it’s Scottish! This year’s soup turned out about the same. (“Needs salt,” said one guest).
The climax of the Burns supper is usually the presentation of the haggis, usually accompanied by bagpipes, and followed by the reading of the Burns poem, “Address to a Haggis” which begins:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm
And the grace does turn out to be as long as his arm—longer, in fact. So we decided to skip it altogether.
When I last dined on haggis at new year (called Hogmanny in Scotland) 2009, it was measured out with an ice-cream scoop and lumped on to my plate along with equal hemispheric portions of mashed turnips (“neeps”) and mashed potatoes (“tatties”).
A mound of haggis can be a bit off-putting, so I decided to go for a more “subtle” approach, and serve my haggis in crisp phyllo parcels with a homemade plum sauce as I had once eaten them at Stac Polly, a restaurant in Edinburgh.
Did I make my own haggis? Ach no. I bought a frozen tube o’ haggis at the Continental Shop in Santa Monica. And it ain’t cheap.
The haggis parcels turned out to be delicious—even my dog Whisky, who I allowed to lick the bowl, enthusiastically agreed.
Haggis tastes a bit like chopped liver or a rich pate, and was described as “earthy” by some guests. Other guests politely declined, or opted for the vegetarian haggis, or, “vaggis” which my friend Brenna so kindly prepared.
My friend Mike raved over the haggis parcels and wolfed down two or three of them, prompting this email the next day:
“The haggis was heard and smelt all the follow day. So nice to enjoy twice.”
The main course was a lamb stew with barley, adapted from Alice Waters’ cookbook, The Art of Simple Cooking. I added the barley (the grain used to make Scotch whisky) to give it a little Scottish flair. There were also mashed neeps (though we discovered too late that what the Scots refer to as “neeps” are known here is rutabagas), and roasted Brussels sprouts.
The dessert, a multi-layered, sherry and brandy infused creation known as a Tipsy Laird Trifle (“tipsy” from the alcohol and “laird” meaning layered), was the most challenging and yet delivered the most satisfying result. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Though we didn’t really read many poems, and didn’t follow the Burns Supper format all that rigorously, I think everyone had a good time. I have no idea actually; I was too stressed to know what was going on.
We did close by singing Auld Lang Syne, which in case you didn’t know, was written by none other than Robert Burns.
The next day, Kate impressed me by whipping up some tattie scones using the leftover mashed potatoes.
I’ve been gorging myself on leftover Tipsy Laird ever since.