ROBERT BURNS, the Scottish poet who brought us "auld Lang Syne," would never have wished the holiday revelry to end with an Alka Seltzer on New Year's Day. His birthday today is a chance to take affirmative action against the post-Christmas blues by honoring the poet, whom the Scots affectionately call Robbie, in the spirit of his verse -- with a celebration known to all Scots at Burns Night.
At St. Andrews University, in a fishing village near the Firth of Forth in the kingdom of Fife, I first commemorated Robbie. In a dormitory with "background," which is to say, no central heating, a hundred students gathered around bright candles at long tables and awaited the haggis, the famed first course of the Burns Supper.
Presiding over our feast was Lorna E.M. Walker, the warden of our residence. One might say that Miss Walker took her title seriously, for ours was a tightly run ship where young ladies had the privilege of staying out until midnight on weekends. Our warden was well-known for her practice of staging fire drills in the wee hours of the morning in order to (shall I say) expose any overnight guests. But tonight she was aglow with a benign radiance as she beheld the dining room filled to capacity, our male friends joining us for a tribute to their main man.
The doors swung open and the chef appeared with his white hat towering over him. He carried the haggis on a large platter and was followed by a kilted piper who had the responsibility of "piping in" the haggis. This meant accompaning the chef's procession with bagpipes as he did a complete tour of the dining room, winding between tables in order that each of us see and smell his creation.
Haggis is reputed to be an acquired taste, although it did not take this non-Scot long to acquire it. It is a steamed meat and oats mixture closest to a casserole in texture; but being encased in a sheep's stomach, the preprandial haggis has the pale and rather formidable appearance of something from a college biology experiment.
This piece de resistance lay on its platter tied with a tartan ribbon. The chef presented it to Miss Walker, and a lad in Highland ragalia rose to address it. The traditional address is a recitation of Burn's poem "To a Haggis," which the lad declaimed dramatically -- Great Chieftain o' the Puddin-race ! Aboon them a 'ye tak your place . . . -- extolling the strength and virtue of the haggis-fed rustic, while ridiculing his less-robust counterpart on the continent. The address complete, the haggis was toasted by all and the lad made the first ceremonial cut with his sword. Accompanied by "neeps an' tatties" -- mashed turnips and potatoes -- it made up the first course, soon to be followed by a roast lamp supper, the only part of the evening without ritual.
More important to the celebration than the main course was the toasting and entertainment that followed it. The amount of toasting seemed incredible to me, and I continue to wonder whether the Scottish people have some kind of genetic advantage in their ability to absorb whiskey. No person, place or idealogy was out of the question as the subject of the toast. We toasted the queen, Miss Walker, absent friends and Scotland the Brave. My friend Shelagh and I watched our dates, Derek and Davie, engaged in an ill-fated private series of toasts in which they matched the company's raising of glasses with quaffs from their private supply, each in an effort to finish his bottle first. O thou, my Muse! quid, auld Scotch drink ! Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink To sing thy name !
Highlighting the toasts were two addresses vital to a Burns Night. The first was the "Immortal Memory," which in this case an emotional endorsement of Burns as an early proponent of equality and freedom. The second was a toast "to the lasses" which was a facetious male-chauvinist-pig-type speech thanking women for existing, followed by a witty and barbed reply from one of the lasses addressed.
The evening ended with a ceilidh, which, believe it or not, is pronounced "cay'lee" and consisted of a great deal of dancing and singing, plus some recitations of Robbie's poems. Davie was by this time in high gear and was dancing so wildly that the accordian player had reported him to Miss Walker for elbowing him under the nose several times.
Derek disappeared in the midst of the ceilidh, but Shelagh was unconcerned, assuming that he would turn up soon. Eventually, Miss Walker pulled Shelagh abruptly from the dance floor. "Young woman," said Miss Walker, "look at the dreadful condition your companion has got himself into." There on the men's room floor lay Derek, sound asleep on his stomach with what turned out to be a broken wrist lying limply beside him. "Hi, Derek," said Shelagh, forever unperturbed.
If Derek was proof that, in Burns' words, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley," then Davie, at least, showed that such an evening could end with a flair. Despite his repeated promises that Scots wore nothing under their kilts, he finally proved himself a liar. As we parted at the entrance of University Hall, he startled a group of staid lasses bidding goodnight to their escorts by flinging off his kilt, revealing a pair of white shorts in which he danced off into the night, a reveler to the last.
To make a haggis in this area one has to eliminate the casing (to the relief of many), since a sheep's stomach cannot legally be sold locally. An American haggis can be fashioned by steaming the pudding in a bowl and using ingredients more readily available than the traditional sheep's heart and liver. To make "Any Day Haggis," simply place 1/2 pound of beef liver and a large onion in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. In the meantime, put 4 ounces outmeal in a pie plate and toast it in a medium oven until golden brown. Mince the cooked liver and onion and add the oatmeal plus 4 ounces shredded suet and plenty of salt and pepper. Mix ingredients thoroughly, stuff them in a greased bowl and place the bowl topped with a saucer in a large pot.Add water to the pot, cover and steam the haggis 2 hours. When it is ready, invert the haggis on a platter and serve.
Be sure to dust off your parents' old edition of Burns in plenty of time for the toasts and recitations. There is also a paperback edition published by Oxford University Press, available at the Book Annex at 1239 Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown.