Burns Night

January 25, 2009 · 5 comments

Today is the birthday of the great Scots poet Robert Burns. It will be celebrated by true Scots everywhere with the traditional Burns night supper, a meal that features a haggis for the main course.

Although I will not be observing Burns night this year, I did for the first time three years ago, made possible be finally obtaining a true haggis.

My friend Straz used to work for Orange, the British (now French) telecom company. He made frequent trips to the UK, returning with odd food items for me, a tradition he had started years before when we shared an apartment. (There will be a future photo essay post of the “odd food” collection.) Upon returning from an executive retreat in Scotland, he presented me with this:

Canned haggis

He told me “Now you have no excuse, I’ve found a haggis for you.” But I did have an excuse: this haggis was in a can. It seemed wrong that my first haggis should be a convenience food found on a supermarket shelf. I realized that I had no way to make my own haggis from scratch, but I wanted to procure a homemade haggis. (The ingredients as listed on the can lead me to believe that it contains a true haggis, merely one that is preserved for longer shelf life. It is now four years past its expiration date; so I may finally open the can to verify the contents.)

I had heard from some of my caber-tossing, kilt-wearing hardcore Scots friends that I could get a haggis at the annual summer Highland Games in New Hampshire, or I could hook up with the mysterious purveyor who took orders and then delivered to selected rest areas on route I95. I would be notified by email about which weekend the delivery run would occur, and I would have to be at the rest stop between the posted hours to receive my haggis.

I discussed this option, making jokes about illicit haggis running, but had resolved to place an order soon. One friend told me “If you get a haggis, all you have to do is call me and say ‘I dare you to come for dinner.'” This was a reference to a Mike Meyers SNL sketch in which Kyle McLachlan declares “Haggis, oat cakes, blood sausage – all Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.”

Before I could place my order, Savenor’s Market – a butcher shop made famous as Julia Child’s meat purveyor – reopened after a fire years before. While browsing through the freezer case where the more unusual fare – ostrich, bear, boar, elk – was kept, I found what looked like a paper-covered, shrinkwrapped softball. Written on the label was “#1 haggis.”

I took it to the front counter and asked the woman at the register “Is this really a haggis?”

She looked at it, then shouted “Tommy!” toward the back of the store. (With the local townie accent, it was more like “Tawwmy!”)

“Whaat?”

“Is this a haggis?”

A head poked out of the back room: “Yup.”

I paid for it, but while she was bagging I asked the clerk “Do you have any idea how it should be cooked?”

“Tommy!”

“Whaat?”

“How do you cook it?”

No head appeared this time: “Internet.”

I found a recipe for the haggis, as well as for the traditional neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes, both mashed) to accompany it. Then I made a phone call:

“I dare yo to come for dinner Saturday night.”

After a long pause: “You found one?”

“Aye, now gae ye here.”

It was a very simple dinner to prepare. Once the haggis was thawed and unwrapped, it looked like this:

Haggis before

After cooking in a covered pot of simmering water for 40 minutes, it looked like this:

Haggis after

I also cooked a samll roast beef, both as a fallback for the faint of heart, and as a source of gravy for the neeps and tatties. While reciting Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” I cut it open with a dagger:

Haggis cut

Openend up all the way:

Haggis opened

How did it taste? Like heavily spiced scrapple, but with less filler. Di and Jamie thought it tasted metallic – no doubt due to the high iron content of the organs – but John and I thought it was just right. There was enough for four of us as a side dish to the beef. I’ve had blood sausages and black puddings since then, the haggis compares favorably to those delicacies.

I haven’t seen a haggis at Savenor’s on my return trips, but I check the freezer every time I go.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

5 comments

Bryan January 25, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I think the correct phrasing for that should be “I triple dog dare you.” Are you sure that was meant as food and not as an article of biowarfare? I mean, I thought that sort of thing was against the Geneva conventions (but I suppose that depends on exactly which bits of the sheep are in it).

Now, if you can come up with a kosher haggis, then you might have something.

David January 25, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Biowarfare? Are you kidding me? I’ve had kugel and kasha varnishkes that could lay an entire family to waste. Zero Mostel, after eating at Sammy’s Rumanian-Jewish Restaurand in NYC, remarked: “This food has killed more Jews than Hitler.”

As for kosher haggis: lamb isn’t trayf, and there’s no dairy component to haggis, so why wouldn’t it be kosher to eat already?

Bryan January 25, 2009 at 11:04 pm

“I’ve had kugel and kasha varnishkes that could lay an entire family to waste.”

You’ve been to my grandmother’s house? I never learned to cook that stuff, either.

Apparently, kosher haggis could be done (I Googled it, so it must be true)–the, uh, “pluck” could be properly koshered if the meat is roasted to completely remove the blood. And all the prohibited fat has to be removed. And the butcher has to stand on one leg under a full moon (ok, I made that bit up). I’d guess kosher lung meat would be a special order at most butchers.

John January 26, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Being the “John” mentioned above, I should point out that the haggis, when surgically opened as shown, oozed explosively from its sac, in much the way that a Cthulhu or an Alien might be imagined to. It was utterly un-foodlike — almost surreally alive — and very similar to what happens when you cut into a living sea cucumber in the same way.

David January 26, 2009 at 8:27 pm

But you ate it. And you liked it.

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