And It's Burns, Burns, Burns …
Supper for the Bard with a Song for the Haggis
By Wayne Alan Brenner, 4:16PM, Wed. Jan. 11, 2012
There's an old Gahan Wilson cartoon
about some Scotsmen gathering on a hillside
to "watch the wild haggis romp," y'know?
And it's funny in part because, well,
a haggis isn't actually a living beast, is it?
No, of course it isn't: A haggis is foodstuff.
A haggis is the boiled, giblet-filled stomach of a sheep.
(We mean: Och, mon, duh).
A haggis is also the culinary centerpiece of
the annual Burns Supper, the traditional Scottish celebration
of the life and poetry of Scotland's beloved bard Robert Burns.
(You've heard of him, probably,
if only as the fellow who first wrote down the words
to that even-500-years-ago traditional song "Auld Lang Syne.")
And that once-a-year Burns Supper –
all festive with speeches and poems and live music honoring Burns' memory –
is coming up on February 4th, as presented by the Texas Highlanders
of Austin's Celtic Cultural Center.
We asked Donnelle McKaskle, founder and director of that Center,
about what else there'd be to eat at this year's celebration.
"Well, there'll be steak pie as well," says McKaskle,
"because we understand that not everybody has a taste for haggis.
And there'll be cock-a-leekie soup, and neeps and tatties –
which are mashed turnips and mashed potatoes."
But the haggis is, as we mentioned, the centerpiece?
"The haggis is presented with fanfare," affirms McKaskle,
"and a poem that Robert Burns wrote called 'Address to the Haggis.'"
(That fanfare, note well, will be provided by none other than
bagpiper Ken Liechti of the Silver Thistle Pipes & Drums.)
"The poem's kind of tongue-in-cheek," says McKaskle,
"because there was a lot of poetry like 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'
or an ode to some beautiful woman or something,
but Burns wrote his about a big stuffed sheep's stomach.
It'd be like a Texan writing 'Ode to the Brisket' or something."
And Burns was renowned for writing of such quotidian fare?
"He was one of the first poets to write about not only what he saw but what he was,"
says McKaskle. "Which was a poor laborer, a farmer, at times a tax collector, a father, a lover.
And he did so with great aplomb – and great applause. He wrote about the common man,
and people really resonated toward that. It was revolutionary poetry at a time when
most of the poetic landscape was more romantic – his contemporaries
tended to make everything sound very pretty and lovely, as if they were trying to find
the prettiest words to write. And then Burns came along and wrote about things like
some lice walking across the back of a fine lady's bonnet in a church service,
or what it was like to be a cotter and see his family gathered around the table on a Saturday night,
or about the folklore around his home town of Ayrshire."
So more like the 99% of us, in other words:
the workaday folk who can't often afford fantasy's frippery,
but who deserve no less to have our world limned in powerful verse.
No wonder there's been such a fine to-do about the man's life and work for around 200 years.
No wonder this night will be brightened with traditional songs by Austin's own Ed Miller
and Jeffrey Jones-Ragona; with the Celtic guitar stylings of Jeff Moore;
and – flying in from L.A., even? – Kieran Elliot of SPIKE TV's Deadliest Warrior as host.
So maybe this is an event worth attending?
"It's an adult celebration," says McKaskle. "In fact, Burns Suppers
were originally for men only – women weren't allowed in the beginning.
You can expect the evening to be, at times, a little bawdy."
Definitely worth attending, then.
But, getting back to that haggis ...
"Anne Marshall, one of our Texas Highlanders, will be making the haggis," says McKaskle.
"Not only for our supper but for other, smaller Burns Suppers in Austin.
She'll use venison if we can find a hunter to donate the meat, because we have to have
the heart and the liver and the kidneys, and most importantly the suet – the kidney fat,
which is hard to come by in U.S. markets.
And, because it's Austin, she also makes a vegetarian haggis."
But, ah, if haggis is made by stuffing the ingredients into a sheep stomach, how can ... ?
"Well, you can use rice paper," says McKaskle.
Like … for making spring rolls?