Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sheepish about Burns

Burns night in the Catskills
Buying real haggis is illegal in the US – so I tracked down contraband sheep guts for the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns's birth

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 January 2009 20.30 GMT

Around the world last weekend, Scots and their sympathisers assembled for the 190 year-old ritual of the Burns Supper, to toast the "immortal memory" of Robert Burns over a fine dish of haggis.

Like many such rituals Burns Night has accrued ahistorical nationalist baggage: tartan, kilts, bagpipes "an a' that". Burns was a radical but a realist. He worked as an exciseman for the British crown that he sometimes berated at a time when this was a patronage appointment. Despite the malt whisky used to toast his memory today, his job's perks included "as much rum and brandy as will easily supply an ordinary family." (No mention of whisky - the days of whisky as a drink of the wealthy were well off in the future.)

So indeed was the tartan kilt. Highland dress was illegal when Burns was young, but Burns and his fellow lowlanders bore the constraint lightly. They were about as likely to wear a kilt and dress up in barbaric Highland splendour as a Wasp banker today is to wear denim overalls. It wasn't until the following century that Walter Scott and his followers romanticised tartans, kilts and sporrans into nationalist symbols.

In the interests of public education and celebration of the internationalist who wrote:

For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

our planned Catskill Burns Supper pledged to dispense with much of the tartanry. What would Rantin' Roving Robin have made of people who wanted to put their pooches in kilts at any time, let along in celebration of his birthday?

And I gather that the Scots themselves have recruited Kofi Annan to celebrate Burns universalism for this, the 250th anniversary of his birth. I hope they provide him with a UN interpreter.

But putting aside kilts, the haggis - "Great chieftain o' the pudding race," as Burns had it - is surely indispensable to the occasion.

After a week hunting for contraband - genuine haggis - the conclusion was that this would have to be a DIY project. It is legally impossible to buy authentic haggis in the United States. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the nanny state reigns supreme, and it reins in import of any comestible containing sheep's lungs. At first, I thought it must be yet another example of crypto-protection for the domestic US haggis industry. But then my research eventually uncovered a quasi-clandestine network of amateur US haggis-makers. Some of them told me that slaughterhouses refuse to give them back the lungs from their own sheep if they take them in for slaughter.

So I hope Burns, the former ploughman and tax-man, would have appreciated our sacrifice. Last Wednesday I stood in several feet of snow at Snowdance Farm, a few thousand feet up in the Catskills in upstate New York, watching Marc Jaffee slaughter a sheep. Marc emptied the sheep's pluck, the liver, heart and lungs, into one plastic bag, and stomach into another, after obligingly squeezing out most of the half-fermented grass. So there it was, a blow for Rabbie Burns and against the tyranny of the US department of agriculture. And maybe the cold was helpful, as the rich, bucolic aroma spread.

The sheep's stomach looked like an alien sex organ, and it had a pervasive cloacal smell, as I everted it and scrubbed it thoroughly, over and over again in cold running water. The lungs were a bit of a trial: the recipe points out that they should be boiled with the rest of the pluck, but with the windpipe over the edge of the cauldron so any mucus would drip out into a bowl.

By this stage I was tending to agree with PG Wodehouse, who suggests that Macbeth's three witches were in fact cooking haggis. He added: "Scotsmen have their merry moods, like all of us, and the thought must occasionally cross the cook's mind that it would be no end of a lark to shove in a lot of newts and frogs and bats and dogs and then stand in the doorway watching the poor simps wade into them." Midwinter in the mountains, all these things had gone to ground, so we were spared the temptation.

The combined pieces, even after a few hours boiling, defied my electric mixer and I had to rush out to get a sturdy cast-iron hand meat grinder, while in the oven the two pounds of oatmeal gently toasted. But the only real tears came from the onions and pepper I chopped and ground into the mix. Stirred together with the liquid from the cauldron, the oats and the minced pluck fitted nicely into the stomach, whose gnarly bits were now safely back inside it.

Dangling in cheesecloth in the cauldron, a mere five hours brought the beast to perfection, in time for the couple of dozen brave souls who weathered the minus-20 degrees Celsius (-4F) to come for the show. Neil Stewart, a Canadian Scot (so that's why they say "oot and aboot," eh?) roared rhotically through the address to the haggis before plunging a dagger into it. It was a very impressive performance, even though our five-year-old spoke for everyone in the way of little boys: "But I can't understand it!"

Ancestral memories nonetheless restored, the multi-ethnic crowd recited verses, sang and generally had a very good time. The one plucky vegetarian actually tried this most carnivorous of dishes – and confessed she liked it – as did everybody else.

And as we thumbed through the collected works of the poet, just after what could have passed as a predictive ode to Washington DC, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, we stumbled across his Ode to General Washington:

A tyrant's proudest insults brav'd,
They shout-a People freed! ….

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

All agreed as the malt - and indeed some rum and brandy - flowed, that the departure of George Bush, and the successful defiance of the USDA made the ode timely. Next year in the Catskills, was the cry.

Watch out sheep.

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