Haggis

Last night was Robbie Burns Night in Scotland. Burns is revered here as the national poet, and his life and work are celebrated annually on January 25th. To the Scots, Burns Night is kind of like Guy Fawkes Night to the English — except instead of lightheartedly burning an effigy to commemorate a 17th century terrorist, the Scots eat a large dinner in honor of a fellow whose only known acts of terrorism were against the English language.

The menu for Burns Night dinner is tightly prescribed by tradition: it must include neeps and tatties (mashed turnips, or “swedes”, and potatoes), a “wee dram” of scotch, and the centerpiece: haggis.

You may be wondering, “What is a haggis, exactly?” and well you might wonder, because I need a rhetorical question like that to introduce this section. One of the few dictionaries willing to discuss the subject defines haggis as “a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.” There may be a few words in that definition that are not revolting, but none of them are nouns. Essentially, a haggis is a sausage made of sadness. As I had never before been sufficiently reckless to try it, Burns Night would be my first tasting.

Our splendid host Susan worked through much of the day preparing the supper, while Carol polished her pronunciation for the address. An important feature of Robbie Burns night is “addressing the haggis,” which I at first assumed to mean that we would select an address at random from the phone book and send them our haggis — rather like a Secret Santa at the office, when you’ve pulled the name of someone from Internal Audit out of the hat. But as you will no doubt have surmised, addressing the haggis is instead the act of making a speech to the insensate lump, in the manner of addressing the troops or a joint session of Congress (more like the latter, I should think).

Fortunately, lest one have difficulty summoning appropriate words for an encomium to a tube of entrails, auld Robbie himself composed the official address to the haggis, which would be repeated down the ages over tables throughout Scotland. The only challenge for Carol would be to pronounce it.

At the appointed hour, Sue laid out the serving dishes atop the hob, and we loaded our plates. We trooped single-file into the living room and sat for Carol’s recitation. Rather than burden you with the entire text, which is full of admirable words like sonsie, thairm, kytes, and luggies, I’ll offer a very free prose translation of the most important passages:

In elder days, the wisest of our ancestors sailed from these shores to discover tropical lands with umbrella drinks and Reggae music. And they stayed there, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to muck around in the peat bogs and eat shite like this here. At least they didn’t take all the scotch. Hail, hail and l’chaim.

Solemnities done, it was time to turn the sound back up on the television, and eat.

I feel complete confidence in saying that nothing else in the world tastes quite like haggis. Upon first sampling it, one understands immediately why the traditional Burns Night menu specifies whiskey as a chaser. Short of refined petroleum, nothing less robust than a good belt of single malt is capable of scouring the flavor of haggis from the palate. Pairing haggis with wine or beer would be like trying to smother a dumpster fire with a moist towelette, or unclog a rest area toilet with an eye dropper.

At this point, you are no doubt wondering, ‘So, why do the Scots eat haggis?’ I will tell you the answer: God alone knows. Why do the Scots live in a place whose climate makes Seattle seem like Morocco? Why do they wear short wool skirts into battle against bladed weapons? Why did the inventor of the highland bagpipe not receive jail time?

It’s a mystery, my friend.


Public Notice: The author of this article has been sacked due to gross misrepresentation of Scotland’s cherished institutions. Against all reasonable surmise, haggis is in fact quite pleasant to eat, and as far as we know may even be good for you. And no one has a go at Robbie Burns except over our cold corpses. Accordingly, you should regard the entire content of the essay as complete rubbish. Except the part about wearing kilts into battle. Even we admit that’s just barking mad.

The Scotland Tourist Board

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Germany don’t make pancakes.

Remember those cooking skills you had in the US? Don’t count on them surviving a trip across the ocean.

A couple weeks ago, I served my family hockey pucks for dinner. Not that I used that description when I touted the meal I planned to make. What I said was words to the effect of “I’m gonna cook up some pork loins tonight, with maybe some lemon green beans.”

But what they got was hockey pucks. Actually, I guess they were more like rubber drink coasters. With a side of rattan sticks.

There was a time not too long ago when I was sufficiently competent to prepare a dish of juicy, appealingly-spiced boneless pork loins, and accompany it with crunchy green beans lightly pan fried in olive oil with lemon and sea salt. But now, not so much.

Once you’ve been cooking a while, you come to depend unconsciously on your local milieu. In the US, when I bought pork loins, they were always a certain thickness. The Germans apparently like theirs cut thinner. So they cook a lot faster. And turn to leather a lot sooner.

Also, it’s surprising how disorienting it can be to use a different system of measures. Your favorite recipe requires a cup of flour and a half pint of buttermilk? Buwahahahaha! Say hello to Mr. Millilitre! And that carton of butter that used to come helpfully packaged in 8-tbsp sticks is now a featureless hexahedron. Which helps explain why my Alfredo sauce from Wednesday night resembles a yellow slag pond.

Of course, that’s all assuming the store even has the ingredients your recipe calls for. We are currently staying a couple blocks away from a massive supermarket that sells maybe a dozen different types of muesli. Want some oatmeal instead? Then you better be prepared to pick it out of the muesli by hand, ’cause otherwise you’re not finding any.

And pancake mix. (Yeah, I make pancakes from a mix. Sue me.) After combing the store seemingly for hours one day, I finally came across the one miserable little plastic bottle of pancake mix in the store. It’s the kind you add milk to, shake, and pour out to make sad, vinyl pancakes. It paired perfectly with the ampule of industrial maple syrup I winkled out from its hiding place in the pickle aisle.

When you cook, do you have a set of favorite “go-to” spices you depend on? Of course you do!  When you come over here, you’ll be unusually lucky if you find them under the same names in German (or French or Polish).  Ever try to tell the difference between Oregano, Basil, and Marjoram just by eyeballing piles of dun-colored leaves in different glass bottles?  I didn’t think so.

Finally, there’s the equipment. For some reason, I can’t seem to master a stove (or “hob”) on this side of the Atlantic. The burner knobs are demarcated with ascending numbers — from 1 to 6, or 1 to 10, or 4.73 to the square root of 59, or whatever. The higher you go the hotter it gets, right? Except it never seems to work quite right. On the hob I was using tonight, pretty much every setting from 3 to 9 had the same heat, which was roughly the equivalent of the fusion-powered inferno at the heart of the sun.

Anyway. I’m hopeful that before too long I’ll get comfortable with my new culinary environment and begin once again to produce edible meals.

Meantime, want to join me for some Chewing Gum Casserole with Patent Leather Pie?