Is Haggis The Next Kimchee?
Getting to Know (and Love) the Scottish lung dish
These days, plenty of questionable delicacies have garnered hipster foodie cred, from kimchee to blood sausage (or just plain blood). But one bloated icon of self-sufficiency and nationalism still remains, at worst, the butt of a joke, and at best, a once-a-year party favor. I speak, of course, of haggis. And this is a shame, because haggis is delicious.
Tugged between insult and emblem—between Mike Myers’ Scottish pastiche and Robert Burns’s historical adoration—haggis is hard to love. Most people, if they experience it at all, do so in the rare, raucous context of Burns Night. A celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Burns Night revolves around liquor, an indecipherable poem, and haggis. Sporting what my scotophile friend Dan calls a Bieber-ish ’do, Burns lived fast, died young, and ate well. His poems, “Address to a Haggis” in particular, are boastful odes to the good life. If Burns lived today, he’d be signed to Cash Money Records. And so, in the weeks around his birthday on January 25th, stuffed stomachs stuff stomachs from Aberdeen to Adelaide. Rejoice: It’s haggis season.
Haggis is part of that almost-always delicious category of Foods of Necessity. Think pickles, shepherds pies, oxtail soup, matzo… Haggis recipes go back centuries—Odysseus probably ate something like it; the Romans surely did—but the standard, “but-and-ben” version was set down, my research shows, by “a celebrated Caledonian professor” known only as Mrs. MacIver. (I found her recipe reprinted in a few books, including the magisterial “British Cookery;” haggis is notably absent from the abridged “Best of British Cookery.”) It’s simple: oats, onions, suet and sheep’s pluck (lungs, liver, and heart), sewn into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Serve with nips, neeps and tatties. Derivations abound, naturally. In “A Taste of Scotland,” a tsk-tsk-ing Theodora FitzGibbon advises that “the finest haggis of all is made with deer’s liver instead of sheep’s liver.” But good luck hunting that at Whole Foods.
In fact, making haggis from scratch is ambitious and, if don’t happen to know a shepherd like my friend Abram, potentially illegal. Lungs have been banned for sale since 1971, and all British lamb imports since the BSE scare of 1989. But pre-made haggis is, thankfully, not impossible to find. (The canned stuff is for novelty purposes only, trust me.) Here in San Francisco, my “hard-hearted harbinger of haggis” is Alex Henderson. He’s been making them in his home kitchen outside Sacramento for years and hand-delivering them to Burns Nights around the Bay. Our three-pounder arrived wrapped tight in tin foil, like a silver football. Boiled three hours and pierced with a ceremonial sword (or, you know, whatever), the “warm-reekin, rich” scent of haggis is nutty and warm, like fresh-baked bread and simmering beef stock. And the taste? Haggis has the flavor of liver with the texture of quinoa. The oats give it a caviar pop; the pluck a pleasant gaminess.
But as good as it is, haggis is nothing special, just an extra-large, extra-offal-y sausage. Indeed, that’s the point. This is the food of the people, sustenance for the salt of the earth, the “rustic haggis-fed.” The pomp, circumstance, and humor that orbit this humble dish force it into the abstract when it should be earthly and unpretentious, Burns’s alternative to frou-frou ragouts and fricassee. So celebrate with a haggis, but don’t be afraid to whip one up any old Sunday (they keep frozen for months). The good life shouldn’t come but once a year. Burns would undoubtedly approve.
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