January 25 is the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, born in Alloway (now a suburb of Ayr) in 1759, and famed for such works as “To a Mouse,” “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” “A Red, Red Rose,” and the words to that staple song of New Year’s Eve, “Auld Lang Syne.” On Burns’s birthday—now commonly known as Burns Night—Scots and Scots’ lovers around the world gather to celebrate, feast on haggis, and drink Scotch whiskey. But how did the stuffed sheep’s stomach become the star of the feast?
The first Burns Night took place in July, 1801, when nine of Burns’s best buddies met on the fifth anniversary of his death to toast the poet and dine on haggis and sheep’s head. The sheep’s head has since fallen by the wayside, but modern Burns Night dinners continue to feature such traditional Scottish specialties as cock-a-leekie soup, smoked haddock, oatcakes, tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips or rutabagas), clootie dumpling (a spicy suet pudding stuffed with dried fruit), and cranachan or tipsy Laird, a scrumptious sweet trifle made with oatmeal, whiskey, cream, and raspberries. (Or try this version, with jam and sponge cake.)
The star of the night, however, is —inevitably—the haggis, at whose ceremonial delivery to the table all guests rise to their feet. Ideally the haggis is introduced by a piper playing on the bagpipes and is accompanied by a recitation of Burns’s 1787 poem “Address to a Haggis,” in which it is reverentially dubbed “Great chieftain o’ the pudding race!” Burns Night is a career triumph for a sheep sausage that began its life as peasant chow.
Historians disagree as to where and how haggis originated. The late Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the snarky chefs of the popular British cooking show “Two Fat Ladies” and author of The Haggis: A Little History, hypothesized that haggis originated with the Vikings and may have come to Scotland via longboat. Food historian Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, suggests that it originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who came up with sausages as a clever means of preserving pig blood and offal that might otherwise have gone to waste. Or it may be a truly indigenous dish: some claim that it dates to the days of the Scottish cattle drovers who, as early as the 14th century, made the long trek out of the Highlands bringing their herds to market, eating haggis along the way.
What all agree is that haggis wasn’t the meal of aristocrats. It’s made from the least appealing bits of a sheep—the heart, liver, and lungs, minced, mixed with oatmeal and onions, and boiled in the sheep’s stomach. (Today often in synthetic sausage casings.) Like the native Americans’ legendary use of every bit of the buffalo, hungry Scots used every scrap of a slaughtered sheep. Haggis was the medieval Scottish equivalent of hotdogs.
Aficionados rave over haggis, and pronounce it warm, filling, nutritious, and delicious. Foes loathe it. In one BBC survey, it was rated as one of the most revolting foods in Britain, on a list that included such other extreme non-favorites as tripe, kidneys, rabbit, tofu, Spam, and peanut butter. Even a poll of Scots found that an unsporting 44 percent hated the stuff; instead, the preferred food of Scotland, by a considerable margin, was curry. The usually adventurous Alton Brown, who provides this haggis recipe, follows his instructions with an unenthusiastic “Serve with mashed potatoes, if you serve it at all.”
American Burns Night celebrants, unless they make their own, aren’t going to get genuine haggis. Authentic Scottish haggis has been banned in the United States since 1971, when the USDA decreed that livestock lungs could not be used in human food. Burns fans on this side of the pond have to make do with substitutes, of which there are many, including beef haggis and vegetarian haggis. (See some options here.)
Luckily, we have unfettered access to Scotch whiskey.
And there’s nothing that prevents us from ending the evening with a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”