26 January 2011

I'm haverin, Rabbie, but ye understaun

Burns Night is on the list of things about which I am ambivalent, mostly because of the accretions of sentiment on and about it. But if you can chip those away and focus on the wit and humour of the man (for he had both in quantity) and the quality of his poetry, well yes, there is something worth celebrating in there.

It does not hurt that Burns Night falls in the vicinity of what either a psychologist or the travel industry has determined to be the grimmest day of the year, when a little wit and humour are needed, or at least the opportunity to get as drunk as is socially acceptable on any night outside of New Year's Eve is appreciated.

In the days when I was 'up' at St Andrews, the Burns Night formal dinner was considered the best of the year, mostly because the furniture was removed from the common room, the rug rolled up, and a ceilidh held after the meal.

It was a good night (or a terrible disappointment) if no one had broken a leg by the time the band began packing up. One of the pleasant things about the Burns Night ceilidh was that people simply cut loose and the dancing was as wild and reckless as it was meant to be, rather than having the joy regulated out of it, as happened at 'official' Scottish dance activities. Reels are not sedate little dances for genteel folk to mince through.

The supper, therefore, was never really the centre of the evening; it was an excuse to have someone recite 'To A Haggis' and to fortify ourselves against the rivers of booze that would flow as the evening wore on. 'To A Haggis' is both nationalistic and apparently the only food praise poem Burns composed, and thus subsituting some other dish for a Burns Supper is even more unthinkable than substituting some other dish for the turkey at Thanksgiving. Of course people do it, but the collective response is (at the mildest) disbelief. I have occasionally found myself wishing that Burns had also written 'To A Vegetable Stew' or even 'To A Bowl Of Porridge.'

I don't wish that because I dislike haggis. I've had the real thing, and it is not unpalatable, as most Americans seems to expect. If you've eaten scrapple, haggis is not much different, and like scrapple, can be very good. To be sure, haggis is poverty cooking dressed up with expensive spices -- an acquaintance once quipped that haggis is made of the parts of the sheep left over after the lord has taken his share -- but then, so is much of what's called soul food in the U.S., or indeed many of the traditional dishes found in every country.

But haggis is not available in the U.S., which leaves those of us who would celebrate Burns Night with a problem. What to do?

There are reports every year of people smuggling (or attempting to smuggle) haggis in from Scotland. I do not recommend this course of action.

There are butchers who will supply mock haggis. These are likely to vary wildly in quality, and there is no guarantee that you'll find such a butcher near you.

There are various workarounds, including stuff in tins. I don't particularly recommend these either, as I've found most of them wanting.

There are those who consider the idea of 'vegetarian haggis' a sin against all things holy, but 'vegetarian haggis' does exist in Scotland and can be bad or good. The best one I remember had brown lentils, onions, finely chopped mushrooms, and pinhead oatmeal as its primary ingredients, and was seasoned with the same spice blend as the meaty kind. I'm not sure it was right to call it haggis but it was a perfectly tasty vegetarian main dish.

I have thought about developing a 'vegetarian haggis' recipe. I may even do so at some point, but I know that I'd be the only person in my house eating it. So this year, I decided on making a lamb sausage (based on Hank Shaw's basic sausage recipe) seasoned like haggis. My ingredient list looked like this:

4.5 lbs lamb meat
1/2 lb shredded suet
1/2 lb toasted pinhead oatmeal (not rolled oats)
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
35 g coarse kosher salt
6 g cracked black peppercorns
4 g coarsely ground allspice berries
4 g grated nutmeg (about 1 whole)
4 g ground mace
4 g dried thyme leaves
2 g ground chile pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup Scotch whisky

When I made these, I did not tell the Viking what I was doing, or what effect I was trying to achieve. I just told him I was making sausage and let it go. His response, on tasting the finished product, was to put down his fork, look me in the eyes, and ask if I knew just how close I'd gotten to haggis.

I win!

Burns Night Supper (Ceci n'est pas un haggis)

Some notes on the making:

As an activity, well, making sausage is one way to spend a day. Making sausage is sufficiently time- and effort-consuming to make small batches impractical; I would not want to make anything less than about 5 pounds at a time. With a few good friends and sufficient space, a sausage-making party to make even larger batches could be fun.

I'm not normally a big practitioner of mise-en-place, but for this it's worthwhile -- weigh out the spices, toast the oatmeal, chop the onion before you touch the meat.

I toyed a bit with which vinegar to pair with the Scotch. I thought seriously about a malt vinegar instead of the red wine, and I'm still not sure there's a 'best' option. And speaking of the whisky, I would strongly suggest using a decent one rather than whatever cheap blended rotgut your local liquor store may have. It's just like cooking with wine. You needn't pour a rare old vintage into the pot, but don't cook with something you wouldn't want to drink. I had an open bottle of Glenfiddich so I used that.

About stuffing casings: you can start with the observation that slipping the casing over the stuffing tip is exactly what it seems like and go from there. Not a task for blushing virgins. As a practical point, it is not easy to fill the casings evenly. It takes some practice. You will get there, but don't be surprised if it takes a few tries.

Hugh MacDiarmid


  1. Funny post, Nora! I like your idea of a veghaggis.

    Here in the US, it seems significant that we don't have Whitman Night or a Dickinson Night. We who care about such things should definitely develop them.

  2. I'm all for communal food preparation, but you'll need to explain carefully if you're going to invite people to sausage party.

    (And do you mean to say that the Viking wouldn't eat a delicious sausage that happened to be meatless?)

  3. Charlotte, I'm all in favour of a Whitman Night -- or Dickinson Night -- dinner. What's on the menu?

    Jennifer, that's exactly why I specified good friends.

    (And yes, I mean to say exactly that).


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