Bobby Burns Night
...The Offal Truth
I was at a dance in a castle in Scotland years ago where afterwards we were served haggis – that Great Chieftain o’ the pudding-race. I’d already gotten into the country’s other national product when a beautiful lass set down it before me. As I was hopelessly smitten with her, I’d probably eaten a sautéed shoe if she’d kept smiling while she told me it was traditional. As it was, I remained in a state of eternal and undying love for the next two and a half hours. The haggis wasn’t bad, but I’m not to be trusted here – the scotch and the teenage hormones were distracting.
Haggis is made of sheep offal – a word that describes what you’re getting into just a little too perfectly. Offal is what the Italian peasantry calls the “the fifth cut” - or the parts of the animal you wouldn’t eat if economics had given you much of a choice: lungs, heart and other bits. The Scots chop this up and mix it with oats and spices, then cram it into a sheep’s stomach or intestines. Then they boil it. Scottish stuffed chitlins if you will.
You probably won’t.
Traditionally the haggis served with neeps n’ tatties – mashed turnips and potatoes. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to get traditional Scottish haggis stateside – since 1971 it has been illegal to import sheep’s lungs from Scotland. It’s a little disappointing but let’s face it, on balance, that’s probably a good thing.
Even more disappointing, as long as we’re being traditional about it, is that haggis isn't strictly speaking, Scottish. The dish is mentioned in 13th century in England, but doesn’t appear in an identifiably Scottish text for another 200 years. In the 16th and 17th centuries the world was still pretty harsh, even for the rich. So it wasn’t considered a low-rent thing to eat, something akin to cleaning out the fridge of left-overs on Tuesday night, and was served on well-heeled tables. Which is about the time, historians reckon, when the dish became popular north of the River Tweed.
Understand that the Celtic Scots and the Germanic English have never shared Britain with much grace. Back when entire countries were the playthings of a lucky family’s trust fund, England didn’t so much conquer Scotland as inherit it. So the two nations found themselves under a single crown in 1603, and made the arrangement honest with the Union Act of 1707. It wasn’t exactly an equal marriage. The English had the upper hand, taking to the agricultural and industrial revolutions with gusto and, by the late 18th century, driving Scots tenets off the land for sheep pasture during the Highland Clearances. Bad mojo, that.
As the English got richer, they turned their nose up at Haggis which, while nutritious, is very cheap. Without much choice in the matter, the practical Scots turned the sneer into a symbol of national pride. So it was that in 1786, Scottish poet Robert Burns penned his famous “Address to the Haggis” turning the underdog status into a point of honor – the embodiment of unassuming resourcefulness.
After that, there really was no getting the English to eat it. Sort of like finding and antifa goon wearing red or a Trumpy in a mask.
As a Southerner who likes to eat, I get this: We’re lousy with dishes like ribs, hoppin’ john, or crawfish étouffée perfected when some poor slob starts with a protein respectable people wouldn’t eat and, with the ingenuity of poverty, creates a culture defining masterpiece. Although I’m not sure about the Scottish fascination with the deep-fried Mars bar.
For the purists, haggis is traditionally served with neeps n’ tatties – or mashed turnips and potatoes in American. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to get traditional Scottish haggis stateside – since 1971 its been illegal to import sheep’s lungs from Scotland. It’s a little disappointing, sure, but let’s face it that’s probably a good thing.