Saturday, December 1, 2012

Haggis: A Glorious Sight in the South

Haggis is not typically considered Southern food, but it frequently shows up on dinner tables for special occasions when Southerners celebrate the heritage of three Scottish ethnic groups – Lowland Scots, Highlanders, and Scots-Irish – hundreds of thousands of whom settled in this region during colonial times.

The “exodus of Scots to America” still shapes the identity of Americans with Scottish ancestry, particularly in many parts of the South, as described in Transatlantic Scots, a recent study edited by Celeste Ray.
Celebrating with haggis is simply one way to use food to preserve a broader cultural identity. What makes haggis worth celebrating? The reason can’t be the ingredients (as listed by Food Network):
  • 1 sheep liver
  • 1 sheep heart
  • 1 sheep tongue
  • 1 sheep stomach
  • 1/2 pound suet, minced
  • 3 medium onions, minced
  • 1/2 pound dry oats, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried ground herbs
Perhaps its charm can be explained by the lyrical honor afforded to this national dish of Scotland by native poet Robert Burns. Proclaimed “a glorious sight” by Burns in his “Address to a Haggis,” haggis was a common but nourishing dish of the poor in Scotland. It was very cheap to prepare because it used leftover parts of a sheep (the most common livestock in Scotland) that would otherwise be thrown away. (Learn more about the history of haggis on YouTube.)

This tradition of Scotland was brought to American by the numerous Scot immigrants, who formed St. Andrew’s societies in their new regions. These groups initially provided charitable relief for Scottish natives and their descendants who were in want or distress in their new land as well as fostered a spirit of community and identity among Scottish Americans. They still exist today in several states and large cities to celebrate Scottish heritage and traditions in the United States.

The chef ceremoniously presents
the haggis.
Although membership is usually limited to natives of Scotland and their descendants, guests frequently are invited to attend special events. When I attended the annual St. Andrew’s Day Dinner conducted by the St.Andrew’s Society of North Carolina, I was not prepared for the high honor that haggis would receive.

Before the dinner was served, a “ceremonial presentation of the haggis” was formally conducted. A platter with a freshly boiled but uncut haggis was marched regally into the dining room by the chef who was closely watched by everyone present. As the chef held high the platter for all to see, a respected member recited by memory the full poem by Burns. After the chef had majestically dissected the haggis, the wait staff brought out servings for all the guests.

An individual portion of haggis
served after the chef had presented
a platter of haggis to the guests.
A national dish of Scotland, haggis is best served with Scotch whiskey and presented with a bagpipe tune to enrich the cultural experience. Such was the case at this dinner. Scotch whiskey was at every setting before guests entered the dining room. After they were seated but before the chef presented the haggis, Bill Caudill, pipe band director at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, played the initial bagpipe selection of “Flowers o’the Forest.

Scotch whiskey awaited each guest
before the haggis was served.
After the main course was served, the Scotch whiskey was used to toast St. Andrew, then the president of the United States, and finally the queen of England. Then the wait staff served five-onion soup, filet mignon, green beans, twice-baked potato, and rolls with butter. Dessert -- crème brûlée -- was later served with coffee (or iced tea for the Southerners present).

In keeping with Scottish traditions, haggis is customarily served on January 25, Burns Day (when the poet was born in 1759); April 6, Tartan Day (that celebrates Scottish heritage); November 30, Day of St. Andrew (patron saint for Scotland); and December 31, New Year’s Eve (when Scotland celebrates Hogmanay, a festive time steeped in many traditions).

McKean's ships haggis
throughout the United States.
Can’t wait for one of these occasions? Order online from McKean’s, the purveyor of Scottish haggis in the United States. Based in Glasgow in the heartland of Scotland and a supplier of haggis since 1850, McKean’s ships haggis in a “cook-in bag” in an insulated container with “ice-pack.” Five pounds serve up to ten people as a main course.

How can something made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep be so appreciated? Chopping them; adding minced suet, onions, oatmeal and seasoning; and then boiling the mixture encased in a sack made from the lining of a sheep’s stomach only prepare the final result — a large spherical sausage — for the grand occasion: a ceremonial presentation.
Is haggis ever for breakfast?

The traditional presentation is indispensable for making the haggis “a glorious sight.” However, haggis by itself doesn’t demand a second helping, but when served with Scotch whiskey and bagpipe music, it beats going hungry.

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