Ach, wee bairns. ‘Tis a high holy nite tonight! You can dispatch your tawdry St. Paddy’s Day to the four corners, ‘cause Burn’s Nite has come again!
Second only to Hogmany celebrations, God’s Good Scots across the world will gather at eventide tonight to begin singing the praises of our patron Bard, Robert Burns. Soundly hailed for his poetic largesse (everyone here knows Auld Lang Syne, but few understand it’s meaning), Burns was perhaps the most famous Scot worldwide, until Mel Gibson provided all with his epic Braveheart that told a favored Bruce clan story.
On January 25, we gather annually to celebrate Burns, and the greatest way to celebrate the man, his poetry and his life, is to throw the biggest party we Scots can provide. Because far beyond the plethora of poetry Burns wrote upon every conceivable subject, be it mundane or sublime, we celebrate his bawdy ways, love of whisky, and certainly his sense of equality and honor. Mostly among my friends, it’s the bawdy ways and whisky we tout.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed hosting quite a few Burns Nites and hired many a teenaged piper to educate the masses on baggery. The price of admission is two-fold: bring a Wee Witty Ditty to share in the roundtable toasts, and at least take one trial bite of my “Americanized” Haggis. I even provide crackers for those idiots friends of mine who prefer to self-serve it as pate. Children under 21 are allowed only to dip their wee pinky in a whisky, and that’s always enough to satisfy curiosities and have them running for the lemonaid…
Tonight, I spend it alone, alas, with the fiance’ in Denver and the sons both at work. Lately in the village of friends, most of our children are in college, and we’re all scattered upon the four winds anyway this week. So I’ll have a private party of my own. I’ve already poured my first wee dram of Caol Ila and will heat up a can of McSween veggie to accompany the sweeds I’ll be boiling soon.
This is my first quiet Burns Nite in a long, long time, which has me remembering some of the notable Suppers of the years past. But there is certainly one that stands out like a thistle in a pond:
For many years, I searched among local regular and game butchers to find an intact sheep’s stomach for the traditional presentation. You see, in Texas, the stomach is always available, but chopped into bits for the basis of a Mexican dish known as Menudo. But I was characteristically tenacious as a malnourished Pitt Bull. Some of these fellows knew precisely who I was when I called, because I did so often throughout the year. I had almost given up hope of ever finding one whole, but just a few years ago, I succeeded at last.
After sending the boys off to school, I hopped into my car and drove some 40 miles to the far west side of Fort Worth and procured a modest specimen, the first whole one I had seen since my rather food-skewed childhood. Everyone in my village of friends knew of my find, new of my excitement, and openly voiced dread of the moment to come. Without exaggeration, I was in Heaven and beside myself with glee.
The next day, I rose before dawn and began to make my proper Haggis, at last. I stuffed the mix into the paunch, sutured it close with a lovely Herringbone stitch, and cooked it to sincere perfection. When they returned home from school in the afternoon, my sons opened the patio doors and windows in revolt, and, within half an hour, the neighbors’ hounds living on three sides of our house began to howl and wail. I was so proud, I could burst!
In just a very short while, my best friends — ten families with all of their children (about 60 folks) — would be arriving on my doorstep, where I would greet them wearing my white jabot blouse with MacLaren sash and evening kilted skirt, and dispatch them through my house where my favorite whiskies were awaiting the adults and mulled cider and lemonaid awaiting the bairns. The feast of Haggis, Tatties & Neeps, Cockaleekie Soup, homemade Bannock Bread and my award-winning Shortbread was proudly presented upon my dining table and buffet. (I learned years before to scratch Tipsy Laird from the menu, since the young boys of our makeshift clan tried to eat much more of their share… But I do have a killer recipe!)
I had outdone even myself! My young teenage sons had donned their own clan regalia with pride and had amassed every sword of plastic and wood each of them had acquired in their years for the boy’s battle to come in the back yard. Excitement filled the air — Burns Nite was here!
And then I got the call.
Connie & Gary reported their children’s Basenji (named Screamer, of all things) had been hit by a neighbor’s car. That dog loved chasing cars more than anything any of us had ever seen. And he could jump their six-foot fence with ease. Mathematically, none of us were surprised, but felt terribly for the heart-broken children.
Connie & Gary were bringing the kids to the Supper anyway, since they were so excited about sharing their Wee Witty Ditties again this year. They thought it would take the children’s mind off of their tragedy for a while. Connie expressed some misgivings about my main course, but thought the children would probably not notice the stomach. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll just keep them out of the dining room.”
There was nothing else for me to do. With my son’s joke-wielding attention and strong support, I made a few requisite photographs of my greatest creation. And with scalpel in a shaking hand, I opened the perfect paunch and emptied the glorious contents into my large heart-shaped cakepan and remolded for a new presentation on the large round silver platter. The boys kindly took over, since I had near collapsed from the gut-wrenching pain of it all, and delicately placed fresh mint leaves around the perimeter.
The shapeful irony was not lost on the parents, yet the bairns’ tender hearts were wholly preserved.
And I’ve never seen another whole stomach since.
As a small means of honoring my kith and kin, I offer here my secret recipe for a USDA-approved version of the oft defiled Haggis. And if you enjoy pate’ or foie gras, this stuff is for you!
The American Haggis
2 lbs lamb roast , chopped into one-inch pieces
1 beef heart
1 beef kidney
2 lbs. beef liver
1 cup Scottish (or Irish-ach!) pin oats (NOT Quaker Oats!)
3 onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon coriander
Reserved stock from cooking the meats
1 intact sheep stomach (Good luck to you there…)
Wash the stomach well by rubbing with salt and rinse. Remove membranes and excess fat. Soak in cold salted water for several hours or overnight, keeping it chilled. Remove from the soak, drain, then turn the stomach inside out (rough side out) and set aside to dry a bit.
Meanwhile… Rinse the heart, liver, kidney and roast well. Slice the roast into one-inch cubes. Place all the meats into a large stock pot, cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 2 or 3 hours, or until the roast cubes are tender. Remove the meats from the water and drain very well. Don’t throw out the stock until after the haggis is mixed. Then mince the roast cubes, heart, kidney and liver very, very finely. (You’ll find the liver succumbs easily; the heart is a tad tough, so mince it extra fine. You can run all the meat (except liver) through a meat grinder, too.)
Toast the oatmeal in a skillet on top of the stove, stirring frequently, until golden and “nutty” in aroma. Combine all ingredients (minced meats, oatmeal and spices) and mix well. Add some reserved stock, a ladle at a time, and stir well into the mix until the mixture is well moistened. It will resemble uncooked dressing in texture, wet and crumbly.) Loosely pack the mixture into the sheep stomach until it is about two-thirds full. (Remember, oatmeal expands in cooking.)
Press any air out of the stomach and sew up the opening with good kitchen cooking twine. Prick the top of the stomach well with a fork to allow air to escape during cooking. Trust me: this thing will explode if you don’t!
Place the haggis into a large stockpot and cover completely with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 3 hours. Do not cover the pot, and check frequently to add more water as needed to maintain water level. If the stomach begins to swell, prick it a few more times with a sharp needle to release the air.
Place bottom-up onto your finest serving platter and decorate the perimeter with cherries, grapes, mint leaves, or whatever strikes your decorative fancy.
Douse during ceremony with good whisky, slice the Haggis open in an “X” with your finest chef’s knife, and serve with your finest serving spoon.
NOTE: If you cannot find a whole stomach, spoon the uncooked mix into a well-greased, very large pyrex bowl and place several layers of oiled heavy-duty aluminum foil against the surface of the Haggis. Place the bowl onto a strong wire rack in a large roasting pan of water, surround with water (a Bain Marie) and steam in a 375-degree (F) oven for about 4 hours. Invert this mound of Haggis onto your finest serving platter, decorate and serve ceremoniously as above.
Favored whiskies for Burns Nite in my house are Lagavulin, Oban, Talisker, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Balvenie and Caol Ila.
To learn all there is to know about Robert Burns, see http://www.robertburns.org