New Haggis Traditions

A couple of years ago, Barry came home from work and asked me, “Are we doing anything January 25th?” I was in charge of our social calendar.

“There’s a PSCC raft-up at Port Madison that weekend,” I replied.

“Oh well,” he shrugged. “My coworker, Dave, just invited us to something called a Burns Night party.”

I lit up like a Christmas tree and started jumping around. “Wow! Cool! Cancel the sailing! I have always wanted to go to a Burns Night!” Barry, understandably, was taken aback.

Somewhere back in the dim recesses of my brain, I knew about Burns Night, when Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, is celebrated. I’d read about it in my childhood, and had been fascinated by the poetry, pageantry, and haggis. I could go sailing any time, but a real Burns Night celebration was not to be missed.

When we responded to Dave with a positive RSVP, he provided additional instructions. Each of us was to bring a poem to read out loud and a chair. Dinner would be served in courses. The dress code was formal.

When we arrived and took our places, the only thing on the table was the Scotch. There was quite a lot of it, with different kinds to sample. Our host was busy behind closed doors in the kitchen, so we all entertained ourselves with the Scotch. It was destined to be a boisterous event.

The first course consisted of cock-a-leekie soup, a simple chicken and leek soup. Of course, the guests were less than sophisticated. “Hey! What’s that?” someone commented. Admittedly, in the dim light, it looked a bit bug-like. But it was a prune, a standard item found in cock-a-leekie soup. Meekly, we ate our soup. More Scotch followed.

Our host’s attire was the subject of much conversation. Instead of his traditional tartan kilt, Dave was nicely attired in Seattle’s hottest new thing, a Utilikilt. Made of denim or khaki, Utilikilts are targeted at manly men, with big sturdy pockets and loops for hammers and tools. They’re a little controversial.

Dave had experienced the controversy first hand when he wore his outside one day. He was standing on a street corner when someone in a passing car shouted a rude comment, along the lines of “Kilts are for Scottish people!” Perhaps for an American, a Utilikilt is an affectation. But if they’d stuck around long enough for Dave to respond, with his musical Scottish burr, they might have been embarrassed to realize that this guy knew his way around kilts.

After the soup, it was time to pipe in the haggis. Since we didn’t have a live piper, someone hit “play” on the stereo and the room filled with bagpipe music. Dave ceremoniously carried the haggis out and placed it on the table, and we all drank to it (more Scotch) and stared at it. It didn’t look too appetizing, but then again, that might have been the dim light. The more Scotch we drank, the better it looked.

When I was a kid and I first heard about haggis, I thought it sounded like the grossest thing on the planet. But over the years, I’ve mellowed, and things that seemed horrible now just seem kind of …. tasty. Like raw oysters. Yum. What grosses me out these days is the way food is processed. Like Lutefisk. Now that’s gross.

A traditional haggis is kind of a stuffing, made from the parts of a sheep we don’t normally eat, chopped up with onions and oatmeal and packed into the sheep’s stomach, yet another part we don’t usually eat. It’s then tied shut and boiled for a long, long time.

Think of it as a kind of sausage, stuffed into a very, very large casing.

Dave had been on the phone for weeks, trying to order an authentic haggis. The deal fell through at the last minute, and he decided to make one. However, the parts of a sheep that we don’t normally eat are impossible to buy. He had to substitute lamb for the offal. And instead of a stomach, he steamed it in cheesecloth. Not the most beautiful haggis, not the most authentic haggis — but it was tasty, and we had plenty of Scotch.

The other dish served was neeps and taties, meaning turnips and potatoes. At the time, even the Scotch didn’t improve the neeps. But I’ve changed my tune on turnips since then. I was forced to change by my month in Newfoundland, where your only choice of vegetable is peas and carrots (canned, mushy) and turnips (fresh, buttery). Bring on the neeps, I say.

At the end of the dinner, we turned to the entertainment. Dave read us something by Burns, which none of us understood. Then he read us a poem he had written, which none of us understood. Then the rest of the group began to read poems they’d brought, which, fortunately, were in English. Some were serious, some were funny. With the amount of Scotch we were drinking, some of the serious ones were funnier than the funny ones.

The following year, Dave had refined the dishes and the ceremony. He’d also wisely bought one less bottle of Scotch. One of his friends got into the spirit of the event and wore Dave’s extra kilt. Barry wore a nice shirt and tie, but deliberately wore slippers instead of shoes. The poetry was even better, with some people writing original pieces for the occasion. Barry and I did a dramatic reading of e.e. cummings sizzling poem, “may i feel said he.”

This year, we didn’t get an invitation to the main event, so Barry and I had to come up with our own tribute to the Bard.

I made cock-a-leekie soup, complete with bug-like prunes. Before we ate it, I said Selkirk grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

And for the main course, I minced up some lamb and onion and oatmeal, put it in a greased bowl, and cooked it in the pressure cooker. It came out as a rounded gray blob, surprisingly tasty. Barry thinks I should call it “lamb loaf.” But considering that we piped it in and drank a toast to it, I think I’ll call it haggis.

Photograph below: The haggis is piped in. Now the chef gets to have a drink!
Meps and the haggis

Websites describing Burns night often list a sequence of events similar to the following.

BURNS SUPPER – Official Sequence of Events
1. Chairman’s speech to welcome company, normally a few short sentences.
2. Then the Grace follows. Traditionally, Burns’s Selkirk Grace is used:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
3. First course of dinner now served, eaten and cleared away.
4. Chairman rises and invites company to rise to welcome haggis being piped in.
5. Once haggis is placed on table, chef and piper have drink then leave.
6. Address to haggis now given and company stand to toast haggis and it is cut open.
7. Company sit and meal continues.
8. Coffee served and Chairman announces an interval (usually 10 to 15 minutes), when company can relax before speeches etc.
9. Immortal Memory by speaker (average time 25 minutes approx).
10. Toast to the Lassies speech (no longer than 10 minutes).
11. Response to the toast (10 minutes).
12. Then usually an Appreciation of the Immortal Memory is given, (10 minutes). Some other toasts or speeches may now be given, depending on Chairman.
13. Now entertainment begins (songs and poems etc), after which the Chairman calls on company to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.

Here is the sequence of events that Barry and I used!

BURNS SUPPER – Amended Sequence of Events
1. Call to supper (“Hey! It’s getting cold!”)
2. Reading of grace, with inappropriate accent
3. First course, cock-a-leekie soup
4. All rise while haggis is piped in
5. Toast to haggis (“Here’s to you, Mr. Haggis!”)
6. Eating of the haggis
7. Clearing of the dishes and loading of the dishwasher
8. Putting away of the leftovers (do we have to pipe in the leftover haggis tomorrow?)

For more fun reading, here’s someone with a whole site describing their Burns Night celebration. It sounds like the Scotch is pretty important.

Or this one, which is full of haggis recipes, sorted “in order of increasing use of animal parts that would normally be thrown away.” In other words, from lesser to greater grossness!

A slightly easier mock haggis recipe.

2 thoughts on “New Haggis Traditions

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