We phony Scotsmen are nowhere near as numerous as the phony Irish who surface on St. Patrick's Day, but we are enough to make a racket on St. Andrew's Day every autumn and on the 25th of January.
The 25th is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, who made Scotland the only country with a poet as its national hero. So once each winter, I go misty in mind and eye, seek out the kilts, the pipes and the lovers of Burns's poetry, and generally indulge in excessive drinking and eating of things Scots.
One year, for a big family occasion, I made a haggis. From scratch.
I was well into the project before I learned that no real Scot even bothers anymore. Haggis is sold these days like any other sausage, in the butcher shops of Scotland, and you can even buy it canned for import to your table. Nevertheless, having gone through the process, I am moved to tell you about making your own. The making of a haggis can provide you with enough conversation to bore your friends for months. Regard:
HAGGIS The stomach bag of a sheep (substitute pig's stomach; see note below) The pluck (heart, liver and lights) of same 2 onions, peeled 12 ounces (2 cups) pinhead oatmeal 8 ounces (1 2/3 cups) shredded suet Salt and pepper A trussing needle and light string
The big problem, as I learned, is to find the makings. I tried a few quick phone calls and trips to local supermarket butchers, only to strike out completely.
One Connecticut Avenue market promised me some liver, lights and stomach but failed to deliver on time. One Safeway butcher on Capitol Hill tried his best, but all he could come up with was an offer of 15 pounds of tripe, frozen.
It looked like defeat. The occasion was the birthday celebration of an elderly family member in Minnesota and I had wanted to get the haggis made before starting the trip.
But I did have the foresight to call ahead to a restaurateur friend to ask if I could use his kitchen for the cooking and his rooms for the party. I also asked if he knew where I could get those sheep parts.
There were other little problems, too. I was using an 18th-century recipe, for instance, which called for "Jamaica pepper." Nobody had ever heard of Jamaica pepper, though one bewildered public information operative at McCormick in Baltimore suggested it might mean allspice, apparently the only pepper-like substance that grows in Jamaica.
I finally did what I should have done first: phone the British Embassy and ask for a Scotsman--any Scotsman. I got one who knew exactly what I wanted (and was the person who advised me that you can go to a store--in Scotland at least--and buy a ruddy haggis). He also squared me away on the pepper problem--it's cayenne. Plenty of it. Every cook is advised to season to taste as he goes along, but haggis is one thing no one wants to taste until it's cooked. So just make sure you put in enough cayenne that its voice can be heard in the chorus of flavors.
I also called several "gourmet" food shops, none of which could help me with that final humiliation, a boughten haggis.
For when I arrived in Minnesota, I found the place, the ingredients and the answer.
The meatlocker, in Dennison, Minn., would slaughter several sheep two days before my party and would have the necessary parts ready.
This is a regional parlance, possibly. A "meatlocker" in Minnesota is a place that does the slaughtering and butchering of animals for the farmers in the neighborhood who want to enjoy some fruits of their labor.
There are probably several meatlockers within easy hail of downtown Washington, in Virginia and Maryland, and next time I'll seek out one of those, giving him possibly a month's notice.
In Dennison, Minn., I got the stomach, heart, liver and lights, fresh-killed, for $10 and they were probably spiking me a bit because I was an effete Easterner.
As for the cooking, get a good, big crock of extremely neutral material and put the stomach into it. Fill it enough to cover the stomach with strong brine. Soak it at least overnight in the brine.
While that's going on, take the requisite amount of oatmeal (it's called Irish oatmeal around here and comes in cans), spread it on a cookie sheet and roast it until it's nice and brown, stirring it around once in a while and being sure not to burn it.
Take the stomach out of the brine, turn it inside out and carefully scrape the lining out of it (or off it). Throw the lining away and leave the stomach turned inside out.
You'll note that a sheep, to your surprise, has two stomachs: a little one called the Monk's Hood--because that's what it looks like and the early Scots were, after all, ferocious Protestants--and the main stomach.
You'll stuff both of these, but I have never learned whether to separate them or use them together. In any case, you must now work fast and make certain of your timing so that the hot haggis may be piped into your seated guests right from the boiling water.
Don't forget to put that stomach through about 10 cold-water rinses after you've scraped it clean. And DON'T cut or puncture the membrane while you're scraping and cleaning. If it leaks while cooking, you'll just end up with about 10 quarts of very strange oatmeal.
As for the pluck (see above), wash thoroughly, put it into a pan, leaving the windpipe hanging over the side of the pan to vent any impurities as it simmers. Cover it with cold water, put in a teaspoon of salt and bring the water to a boil.
Skim the broth while it boils, then reduce to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Parboil the onions and drain them, reserving the liquid. This can go on while you're browning the oatmeal. When the onions are done, chop them up roughly.
Recipes don't make a distinction, but I don't feel it helps liver much to simmer for 2 hours, so I throw the liver in for about the final 45 minutes. In any case, when the pluck is cooked through and tender, remove it from the pot and cut off the windpipe and any gristly items you can see. Mince the heart, the lights and half of the liver. Toss the excess away.
Stir in the shredded suet, the oatmeal and the onion and season well with salt and cayenne. Then moisten the lot with enough onion water or pluck water to soften the mess and make it stick together.
Now take the stomach bag or bags and fill each about half full with that forcemeat. Remember, the rough side of the bag is out. Then sew up the bag with the needle and string, making sure you don't puncture the skin too much.
Recent recipes actually recommend poking holes in the casing, so perhaps is isn't so important not to. You certainly don't want the haggis to explode while cooking.
Janet Warren, an expert on Scots and English cooking, says next to put the haggis on an enamel plate and sink it into a pan of boiling water. In my innocence, I just plunked the pie ce de resistance into the water--it floated anyway, so what's the plate for?
Cover the pan, let the water boil gently for about 3 hours, and add boiling water when the water gets low, to keep the sausage covered.
If you're doing a real Burns' Night dinner, you may then turn your attention to the rest of the meal. Warren's "typical" meal goes like this:
Cock-a-leekie (chicken soup with rice and prunes!)
Haggis with Tatties an' Neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips)
Typsy Laird (Scots version of the Trifle)
The night I put on my show, my friend the restaurant owner served some smoked turkey beforehand and nice, thick steaks after the haggis.
Haggis should almost make your eyes water with the spiciness of the pluck and the cayenne--but we're getting ahead of the story. First the haggis must be piped into the dining room and presented to the host, who generally approves it and demonstrates his approval by stabbing it with his little dagger or any other suitable blade. Experienced hosts stand well back, to avoid the blast of escaping steam and oatmeal which sometimes results.
Then everybody, even the most squeamish, takes a taste of the haggis. Hot, spicy and otherwise nondescript. But tradition dictates that Scots whiskey is the drink for haggis, and once you've downed a nip of the stuff (which is in a glass by your place), the whole thing comes together. It's terrific and even makes the whiskey taste good.
If the host is well-trained for the game, he pauses before delivering the killing blow, to salute the haggis, usually by reciting Burns' well-known Address to a Haggis (Upon your fair an' fonzie face Great Chieftan o' the puddin' race ...).
And if the party is of the proper frame of mind before anything happens, a grace is said, the Selkirk Grace, which is also attributed to Burns:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Note: Even a phony Scotsman might not approve, but a pig's stomach--available at Eastern Market Meats, among others--can be substituted for a sheep's stomach if a Duluth meatlocker is inconvenient.