Poets have a way of immortalizing vittles in verse. William Carlos Williams' icebox plums will be making our mouths water for centuries yet. Lewis Carroll's mock turtle soup, that beautiful soup of the evening, still brings a tear to the eye. And Rabbie Burns will always have his warm-reekin haggis, which for him was not only a tasty supper but also a symbol of Scottish thrift and heartiness.
Last Wednesday was the 247th birthday of the great poet Robert Burns aka Rabbie, Scotland's favorite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and the occasion has become an unofficial Scottish holiday. Each January 25 or thereabouts, Scots the world over gather to eat haggis, drink whisky, read poetry, expound, and drink more whisky. And once they drank enough whisky, maybe they'd eat some more haggis.
This was the first Burns Night at the Berkeley City Club. I worried that my tablemates would unmask me as an interloper when I proved unable to converse in Burns' own Scots dialect or recite his verse by memory. So I did my homework, prepared to pepper my banter with requests for pint-stowps and remarks on how weel-swall'd my kyte was. But I needn't have bothered -- despite their exuberant tartan and tam-o'-shanter-wearing, many attendees were no more initiated: One even asked me what exactly a "hoggis" was, anyway.
Now, a Scotsman wanting a wee bit of fun with you would tell you a haggis is a beastie with three legs of differing lengths -- thus evolved to run speedily around the steep Highland hills. In fact, in a recent poll of one thousand American tourists considering a trip to Scotland, one-third thought haggis was an actual animal. But here's the truth of it: Haggis traditionally consists of a sheep's stomach bag, stuffed with a mix of sheep's pluck (liver, heart, windpipe, and lung), plus oatmeal, suet, stock, onions, and spices.
Unfortunately for purists, the FDA has decided the traditionally recipe is unfit for human consumption. Chowing down on ovine lung is not cool, apparently, so haggisheads stateside must make do with an Americanized version. And the delicacy suffered yet another blow last week when the Scottish government ruled that, because of its high fat and salt content, haggis should be served to schoolchildren only once a week at the most.
You read that right. Scottish children so enjoy their sheep offal, laws have been enacted to protect them from it.
Edinburgh-bred Rosemary Mucklow, the Berkeley City Club president (and, incidentally, executive director of the Oakland-based National Meat Association), told me they'd procured the evening's three haggis from the Scottish Meat Pie Co. up in Dixon. Alex Henderson, SMP's owner and another Edinburgher, says he's been selling three-quarters of a ton of the stuff per year. He was kind enough to tell me which parts of the lamb they use: shoulder, liver, heart, and spleen. They don't use sheep stomach for the casing, but rather cow intestine.
Rosemary told us there were alternatives for patrons who lacked the courage to face the dreaded haggis. There would be finnan (typically haddock, but in this case halibut, poached and kippered), and roast lamb with a sauce of mint plucked from her own garden. But I hadn't paid thirty dollars to wimp out. My date and I decided to hedge our bets. "You get the roast lamb," I pleaded, "and promise to share with me if the haggis is gross."
Gathering in the club's second-floor Venetian Lounge, we got right to work on a trio of appetizers. The Scotch eggs had been hardboiled, then rolled in sausagemeat, battered, breaded, and fried. They had a pleasant taste -- especially with a dollop of mustard -- and a nice combination of textures. There were also banger rolls, small sausages wrapped in a surprisingly flaky pastry, and some sort of tart with ground meat -- flavorful, if a bit greasy.
Soon the bagpipes began their wail in earnest, the signal for all to proceed elegantly into the dining hall ("the Scottish diaspora," someone joked) where a blazing fire awaited. Rosemary said the 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.
Then came our cock-a-leekie soup as Rosemary read us a moving panegyric on Burns penned by her brother-in-law Errol. The soup -- like haggis, a traditional way to use up leftovers -- combined chicken, leeks, broth, bacon, and what seemed to be prunes. It was hearty and meaty, and assuaged my fears of what was to come.
Now for the main event. The bagpiper led, followed by Errol with two bottles of Scotch held over his chest in imitation of St. Andrew's cross. Behind them, three goodly haggis, borne on a silver trencher. They were paraded around the room, so that all might gaze upon the plump puddings. Errol recited Burns' "Address to a Haggis," and all applauded, then filled our plates with tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips) and the excellent finnan halibut. In the end, I sampled all three entrées, including, of course, the honored haggis.
You know, it wasn't that bad, really. Like oatmeal mixed with liver ... but in a good way. Especially when washed down with a nip of Glenlivet and a tad of Rosemary's dense, moist Dundee cake. Really, I'm sure Rabbie would have preferred it this way himself.