“Fair fa’ yer honest sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ race.
Abin’ them a’ ye tak’ yer place, painch, tripe or thairm.
Weel are ye worthy o’ a Grace
–as long’s ma airm”!
The groanin’ trenchard there ye fill,
Yer hurdies like a distant hill,
Yir pin would help tae mend a mill in time o’ need.
While thro’ yer pores the dews distill
-wi amber bead.”
Extract from Robert Burns’ “Address tae a Haggis” crica 1787
At this time of year, the dreary, dark, post Hogmanay (New Year) nights of January and February in the Northern hemisphere are lightened and enlightened for many Scots and their former colonial outpost relatives and descendants south of the equator –where it is now mid-summer-, by the celebration and birthday remembrance of Scotland’s greatest poet and humanitarian, Robert (Rabbie) Burns –25th January (1759) give or take a month each side of that date annually, in recitation of his prolific verse, song, dining and sluicing at some length during the ceremonial dinner known as a “Burns Supper” featuring Haggis, mashed tatties (spuds) and turnip with usually an alternative entrée for non-haggis types and/or vegetarians, although there is a non-meat version of the dish sometimes made by my late mother (who shared Rabbie’s birth date) and occasionally these days, myself.
I’m not going to go into an historical biography of Burn’s full but tragically foreshortened life, his constant battle with poverty, his energetic womanizing and drinking (let’s just call it zest for life) and death at age 37; you can find this in many versions elsewhere if you care enough to look. I’ll hearken back to him at times when relevant during this wee billet-doux (Billy-doo).
Like many other of the creative ilk, Frederico Garcia Llorca, Bix Beiderbecke, Mozart, Eddie Lang, Art Tatum and so many others (add yours to taste) come to mind, as biographer and witness to his passing Allan Cunningham wrote, “He was thirty seven years and seven months old, and of a form and strength which promised long life; but the great and inspired are often cut down in youth while “Villains ripen gray with time”.
Fast-forward to more recent times, I remember a few years ago trying to get the late Rev’ Billy Hults and “Uncle” Mike Burgess, local scribes and pundits of Cannon Beach and The Paper Version of The Upper Left Edge” now an on-line ‘zine and writer’s forum, to try Haggis amidst many shudders and “Nah man, I have my limits—” kinds of statements. I also remember that Mike had a famous aversion to shellfish, referring to them as ”Sea Insects”, so I let it go at that with a sotto voce guffaw and didn’t give ‘em my favorite retort to Norté-Americanos who exclaim “Haggis—ewwww”!!!! –My general retort, “D’you like Ball Park Hot Dogs (I do)”? The invariable reply is “Yes, of course!” or words to that general effect. Then I ask “Have you ANY idea what goes into Ball Park Hot Dogs?” This is usually followed with a short silence and shaking of the head and maybe a few ribald remarks or chuckles but little progress beyond that.
My own theory, in this age of excessive marketing and packaging, is that if Haggis were tarted-up, served in cute li’l easy-open cans or boutique glass bottles and renamed “Paté Ecossais” it would sell in quantities presently unimaginable, especially the vegan/vegetarian manifestation (now that’s REALLY peasant food!).
In fact, my buddy John Sowa, owner/chef of Sweet Basil’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Cannon Beach and formerly the Li’l Bayou in Seaside, gets a wonderful Boudin Blanc sausage from the N’awlins area for some of his first weekend of each month Cajun-Creole menu, which I love and which has almost the exact texture of Haggis. I’ve renamed this lighter-colored concoction “Cajun Haggis”, the difference being that the original is of lamb spare bits, oatmeal, onions and quite a bit of pepper, the bayou regional version being composed of pork bits and rice. John was good enough to make me a Cajun-Hag’ birthday cake last June with a single candle (photo on request).
To further illustrate my point, my wife Kate, on her first trip to Scotland, tried Haggis and liked it (in the spirit of “you don’t have to like it but you have to try it”). It is also enthusiastically testified to by such culinary luminaries as Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay (He IS Scottish), Jacques Pepin and others, although I’ve never heard any opinions by the late, great Julia Child, James Beard or the very much with us Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller thus far.
Historically, Scotland and France have long formed alliances both cultural and socio-political, against the “Auld enemy” the pushy, expansionist and hubristic English, and the word “Haggis” may well have sprung from the term “Hachis” or “Hash” as you might say here. “Hachis Parmentier” is the French equivalent of Shepherd’s Pie made mostly from leftovers with mashed spuds on top, and even Hamburgers were called “Biftek Hach” (Chopped beef) in their original French manifestation so there is definitely a link there. So which came first, the Haggis or the Haché?
Woah –back up laddie! I just realized that many of you may not know what the hell Haggis is and why all the reluctance to try it.
OK, here goes.
Haggis, in it’s original manifestation was (and still is) oats or oatmeal, plenty chopped onion, coarse salt, some spice including a generous quantity of black pepper, sheep’s organ meats including the “pluck” (lungs and guts “plucked” out of the interior), ground up, mixed together and stuffed into a cleaned out sheep’s stomach (or commercial sausage casing these days) secured at the open end with a “pin”, steamed/braised in the oven over water until cooked then generally served with mashed spuds and turnip. It is truly peasant fare as is much of what are now called French “Bistro” dishes, Spanish campesino cooking and tapas and some of the best food around the world, using and scrounging what was available to them from the land or leftovers from the tables of the wealthy.
The essence of the aforementioned Burn’s supper is the ceremonial piping in of the Haggis on a large silver platter or trenchard, by a bagpiper in full ceremonial highland dress, preceded by another kilted person holding a bottle of whisky and a ceremonial dagger, who parade round the room and come to a halt in front of the Master of Ceremonies, who is presented with the dagger which, after reciting the poem “Ode to a Haggis” plunges the dagger into the pudding whereupon the savory filling spews out like pungent, aromatic lava, then is returned to the kitchen for distribution. Mo’ later.
Back to Rabbie.
Burns was a man of the soil and a loyal and often visionary populist, disdainful of the upper and especially royalty-fawning classes which he observed caustically in many poems and prose-writings*, and the church with it’s ever-shifting double standards of what was holy and what was not** and came from peasant stock but was educated (still a comparative rarity at grassroots level) by his fairly benign –for the times- landowner factor who took an interest in his precocious intelligence. He was fascinated and many times inspired by the revolutionary movements of the times in both France and the New World, particularly North America where the news of revolt from below eventually filtered back through the available media.
His themes and language reflected his sympathy for the peasant’s hard lot but his intrinsic worth (“A Cotter’s Saturday Night”, “The Twa Dugs”), the promise of the Brotherhood of Man (*“For a’ That” –an indication of his internationalism and visionary mindset, all the more remarkable considering his peasant beginnings), the hypocrisy of the God-botherers and Church (**“Holy Wullie’s Prayer”, “Address to the unco guaid, or the Rigidly Righteous”), social pretense and posturing (“Tae a Louse”) our link to the natural and animal world (Tae a Mouse”), his love of femininity (Tae the Lassies”) and romantic Ballads inspired thereby (My Love is like a red, red Rose”, “The Bonny Lass o’ Ballochmyle”, when he lapsed into “proper” English from the Scots vernacular) enjoyment of strong drink and camaraderie (“Scotch Drink”), fantasy and fairy tale –often inspired by strong drink (The epic “Tam o’ Shanter”, “Address tae the Deil”) and many intersections of such themes.
He was once introduced to –and duly impressed- Sir Walter Scott, more known for his historical romantic ballads and tales more concerned with the doings of the nobility, in direct contrast to Burn’s grassroots-based work focused on the everyday concerns of ordinary folk and their relative closeness to the natural world. This may help to explain Burn’s universal adoption and acclaim both nationally and globally, as Scotland’s Premier poet and Scott’s relative confinement to the refined linguistics of academia and the elites who occupy that dusty niche. I know that we were taught both in Scottish High School and that Scott was inclined to be received with resignation whereas Burns was enthusiastically studied for the most part. I instantly became a dedicated Burns student for life since then and it may have been instrumental in forming the beginnings of my lifelong left-orientation politically.
This always stood me in good stead as one who would be invited to many Burn’s Suppers as a guest who could be counted on to provide an acceptable, even extemporaneous “Immortal Memory (prose tribute) or recite a poem including the epic “Tam O’ Shanter” which I was inclined to act out and had down pat without needing reference to a book. I’ve also been MC at many suppers in my latter years, from Scotland to Java, Indonesia to the SanDune Pub, Manzanita, of which more later.
Now, to digress just a tad, a point which may surprise many Americans is that no less than Bob Dylan -in my opinion America’s greatest poet- credited Burns, particularly his ballad “Red, Red Rose”, as his greatest source of inspiration, even over his idol Woody Guthrie, and that a strong link existed between Burns and President Abraham Lincoln, who could apparently recite much o’ Rabbies poetry by heart and quite movingly. I’d love to have heard that soaring voice reciting “For a’ that”, and that he might have even been positively influenced by the bard’s humanist views. It’s even speculated that Lincoln used “Red, red rose” in a love letter to woo a lady.
It’s nice to know that such historical and socio-political links exist between these beloved figures –I’m pretty sure that Bob Dylan’s work will join Burns and Lincoln in being remember and admired in 200 years time.
So, back to the puddin’.
For those who might still be squeamish or dubious about Haggis, I’ll share a couple of wee anecdotes with y’all, possibly not quite P.C. in these times of the “fat police” and a very limited range of meats that most Americans (especially), will eat, mostly limited to chicken, beef or pork, generally factory farmed and hormone-jacked. Also, I’ve read from more than one source, that since the advent of the mostly appalling (in my again ‘umble opinion) cooking channel, more people are watching cooking –and cooking less.
The vision of a family clustered around the flick’rin’ screen avidly gawking at Emeril, Paula Deen or any of the other new stars –some of lesser of whom can barely cook, or “Iron Chef”, whilst stuffing the products of Pizza Hut, KFC or Mickey D’s into their mouths, attached almost intravenously by straws to super-sized syrupy sweetened gas-pop, is almost too sickeningly delicious to leave out here.
Well, when in my previous life-manifestation I was living and working in Java, Indonesia, I decided to hold a Burns supper at our house, set high up @ 2,000m A.S.L. on the side of the perpetually- active volcano (the safest kind BTW), “Tekabuan Prahu” with a beautiful view over Bandung to the distant coastal mountains and a hectare + tropical garden with clove bushes, banana trees, a huge mango “ghost” tree and papayas the size of professional golf bags and a spacious, terrazzo, clad interior with semi-circular living room (this to illustrate how the bagpipes echoed out “wi’ mony an eldritch screech and bellow”).
An English friend had just gone and returned to blighty for Christmas and brought back several Haggi (?) for the occasion. Our cook/ housekeeper Atim, driver Wawan and gardener Tarjoh were fascinated and kept asking “Sausage mister Brian?” As my Indonesian was not up to my oft-inflicted on the uninitiated furriner story, that a Haggis was a wee critter with one set o’ legs shorter that those on the other side that runs around the Scottish mountains and hills and is hunted at this time o’ year, I just replied “Sausage spesial”!
Anyhoo, we assembled a very international guest list that Burns would have loved –Chinese, Javanese, Australian, French, English, Scottish, Malay, Indian American, and got an excellent bagpiper from New Zealand who had just arrived in the area and the whole thing was a great success, including the Haggis. Our driver was in tears at the deep, gut-searing skirl of the pibroch (long, intense, limited note but expressive grace-note funereal laments for the Highland pipes not unlike the Flamenco Siguyerias or the deep Delta blues), amplified by the high air and the terazzo interior with the house doors open, several of our local neighbors who were always welcome at our parties, stopping by to stare and listen.
More recently, I put on a Burn’s night at the SanDune Pub in Manzanita with the assistance of our dear friend and owner Debra Greenlee in the years 2006 and 2007, featuring Haggis by my ol’ buddy and Portland-based Canadian-Scot, Donovan Gilmore, who still makes the best puddin’ I’ve had this side of Edinburgh, and both the great Highland pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes played by my friend and teacher Gail Gibbard, who can play anything with a hole in it. I was MC and poetry gabber, cooked dinner for seventy guests, including an alternate dish of salmon poached in saffron custard and a vegetarian/vegan haggis, with the requisite tatties and turnip, put on music and song, kilt and all.
The main point I make here NOW PAY ATTENTION Y’ALL, is that only about six or seven brave souls ordered Haggis but some were willing to “try a teeny spoonful” of haggis from their braver neighbors (Traditionally, long tables are used in these affairs to encourage camaraderie). Well when they tasted, they loved –ergo, suddenly we were inundated with orders for Haggis, eventually ran out and were left with a bunch of salmon at the end of the night (subsequently made into salmon cakes). Now, if THAT doesn’t convince you that the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ Race” is worth trying, I don’t know what will. I’m sure that Debra will verify this story if you doubt my credibility.
Coda, or as Rabbie said in his ending of “Tam o’ Shanter”, “But hear my muse her wing maun cour, such flichts are far beyond her power”, or -I’d better get this done, as it’s getting’ a bit much –possibly for the reader also.
My own thinking, reading and writing, sense of wonder and curiosity not to mention cooking, dining and willingness to try almost anything during my perambulations or staggerin’s around the globe (even I have my limits but we’ll let that pass) were given a good, honest kick-off by early immersion in Burns and many other sources such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Omar Kyayyam, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Spike Milligan and John Mortimer to name but a few but Rabbie always carried a certain sense o’ national pride in being so universally respected and genuinely enjoyed.
In addition, my own mother was a starting point for my love of food and cooking –a genuinely creative and brilliant cook – baker. She made haggis the old-fashioned way, whether meat filled or just oatmeal, onions and spices. She was also the funniest woman I ever knew, with her own way of saying things that amounted to almost a new language at times, giving me a unique sense of language and humor and an abiding sense of the ridiculous in everyday life.
So both bard Rabbie and Haggis are deeply embedded in the Scottish phsyche and at table year round at home and worldwide (even had it in London).
On most recent visits home, I’ve had haggis in meatball form, in rings with a whisky sauce, deep fried in “Chippies” and sliced and fried for breakfast with eggs, potato pancakes and bacon. Never tried it “curried” as offered by some of the more tourist-oriented and gimmicky of the many Indian eateries in Scotland and Gawd knows what one of the new “Gastro-Pubs” inflicting themselves on the British culinary landscape will do with it if they deign to elevate it to their misanthropic menus.
But I love it. I can’t afford to sponsor a Burn’s supper any more in our area as I’ve done in the past but anybody interested in sponsoring a new company to produce and market some variations of “Paté Ecossais” with cute li’l menu suggestions and/or a bit o’ Burns’ verse on the label? Or a paté, sausage and savory pie automat?
As y’all can see, I’m just full of it!
Lang may yer lums reek.