Ae Fond Kiss For Burns Feast’s Disreputable Dish

Admitted anglophile that I am (please note ongoing reference to PG Tips, football-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-yard-lines and Cadbury as evidence), I thought it only fitting to dedicate this latest post to Britain’s holiday romp known as Robert Burns Day.

Image: Library of Congress

Also widely observed as Burns Night, this annual January 25 celebration commemorates the birthday of Scotland’s greatest romantic poet and lyricist Robert Burns – affectionately known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard. Ringing any bells from your English Comp I days? How about lines like, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose.” No? Okay, fine. Forget the verse. Let’s move on to the main draw in toasting an 18th-century ladies’ man: the Burns Supper.

Now, obviously, this is my kind of holiday, lauded in spot-on form with a HUUUUGE tablespread of traditional goodies and Scotch whiskey. Lots of whiskey. For background, the first Burns Supper was held at the bard’s own birthplace Alloway cottage in 1801 and for several years commemorated Burns’ July death as well as his January birth. Speeches and toasts were made to the poet’s “immortal memory,” with poetry recited between courses – a tradition still continued today. Here’s a complete rundown of formal supper festivities from the Robert Burns World Federation. But for our sake, the basic need-to-knows include Cock-a-Leekie soup, neeps and tatties (turnips and mashed potatoes), and the main culinary star of the evening… Scottish haggis

Okay, before any retching noises or browser-refreshing ensues, I beg you to indulge a girl’s earnest attempt in vindicating this subject of near-mythical villainy. What is it about haggis anyway? Where or how Americans developed this sense of misguided repulsion is beyond me – as if raw fish or street vendor mystery-meat-on-a-stick is any more reassuring? We serve Foie gras on silver platters, slather sauerkraut atop our corned beef on rye. Nacho-flavored cheez-whiz, now that is frightening. And yet a little innards, oatmeal and spice have us running for the highlands? Unfathomable.

So when I found myself wandering the streets of Edinburgh on a cold, dreary September afternoon back in 2008, there was no question in my mind that I was going to give haggis a try. Our little traveling party had maneuvered into a cozy dining room overlooking the Royal Mile, an elegant retreat from the bitter chill outside with delicate china and linen tablecloths. When the waiter took our order, I didn’t flinch in my delivery. If there was ever a time and place, this was it. What arrived at the table a short time later resembled nothing like the bulging, reeking balloon stuffed with boiled sheep parts of lore:

Sitting atop a shallow pool of light whiskey gravy, the haggis was warm and nutty, with rolled oats and peppery spices folded into the minced meat. A layer of mild yellow turnips and buttery tatties made the dish hearty and delicious – almost like shepherds pie. Also had to give our server extra points for the cute, albeit touristy, touch of topping all with a Scotland flag in miniature. I had no trouble cleaning my plate (with the help of two other would-be naysayers).

So why all the haggis hubbub? Maybe a big part of the mystique lies in the fact that since 1989, haggis has been banned from import to the US following a mad-cow disease outbreak in Britain. Not that it’s caused ongoing concern across the pond: haggis sales grew 19 percent in 2009 alone. What makes this year’s Burns Feast especially big news is that the USDA is expected to lift its 21-year restriction, relaxing legislation on imported meats that has prevented sale of the Scottish staple stateside.

Who knows, by next year we might all be able to finally stomach (pun fully intended) Scotland’s “great chieftan o’ the puddin-race.” Until then, I say cheers to Burnsy and the whiskey-fueled feast he inspired.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!


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3 Responses to “Ae Fond Kiss For Burns Feast’s Disreputable Dish”

  1. Mr. C Says:

    Gregogirl – another great piece! Your writing is superb and the mixing of history and local culture with your descriptions of food really works! You are a shortcut on my desktop. Obviously G-Man likes your work, looks like he gets paid by the word! HA!

    • gregogirl Says:

      Mr. C, thanks so much for the lovely compliments, and I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. As a brit-lit nerd, I love Burns and thought myself fairly well-versed – what a shock to learn I was missing out on one of his finest contributions!

  2. G-Man Says:

    Well gregogirl, you’ve proved that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Your wonderful tribute to Robbie Burns took me back lo some 40 years to my first experience with Haggis – at The Royal Hotel in Thurso, Scotland (a seaport town about as far north as you can go). After spending a full month as a guest and enduring endless teasing and challenges from the local townfolk to sample their prized dish, I and three fellow colleagues (two Japenese nationals) requested the hotel manager to honor us by serving a traditional Scottish dinner for our last evening meal before our departure. The menu presented was exactly as you’ve written (by the way, mash-ed tatties and bash-ed neeps are both pronounced with two syllables). The only difference in the presentation was that the haggis was served on a separate platter still enclosed in its bulging casing. As the senior member of our group, I was given the ceremonial knife and honor to “kill the haggis”. To this day I can still taste the gritty texture and wonderful flavor and most of all the experience of that night. Thanks for taking me back.

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