Jan 252012

Supper's ready!

Tonight is Burns’ Night, the anniversary of Robert Burns‘ birthday, a poet whose work was written in Scots dialect and is largely incomprehensible to anyone reared outside of that beautiful country’s borders. For example, his poem “To A Mouse” begins:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

It is big business north of the border, the culmination of all of the eating and drinking training that has been put in over Christmas and New Year; here in England it is more often than not overlooked unless it is a very slow news day, in which case the telly will be taken over by burly men in kilts explaining why it matters, generally with the benefit of subtitles for the nesh southerners. I am not proud to admit that I know little of the poet’s work, or his life, other than that he died young and that enough wee drams are sunk in his honour to keep the majority of Scottish distilleries in business the whole year round.

Many cultures enjoy a national dish which as soon as they are able to exercise sufficient mental dexterity to poke a nearby animal in the eye with a pencil they are sworn to a solemn promise under pain of losing their place in heaven that they will never admit to any other human being is completely inedible, but which on at least one occasion a year they have to force into their mouths and keep down. These are usually meat-based, and if ever I am faced with them I thank my secular God that I decided to become vegetarian when I left home.

The people of Iceland enjoy the delicacy known as Hakarl, which is shark that has first been buried in sand for 6 to 12 weeks to “ferment” (or “rot” as non-Icelandic people generally describe it), and then dug up again, cut into strips which are hung out to dry for several months. It is washed down with Brennivin, which is schnapps made from potato. A friend and I went to Iceland on holiday many years ago and I have not forgotten the sensation of drinking Brennivin: it is as close to pouring white spirit down ones throat as I ever hope to experience.

On Burns’ Night the people of Scotland enjoy the Haggis, which to a faint-hearted vegetarian like myself appears to be a huge bloated sausage constructed from parts of animals that even Ozzy Osbourne would hesitate to put into his mouth, bulked out with horse food and whatever is left laying about, served with neeps and tatties, which is mashed swede and potato, presumably so that those who are not drunk have something on their plates which they are prepared to eat.

I have found a recipe for a “vegetarian haggis,” which contains ingredients that I not only recognize but would be prepared to put into my mouth, and thought that I would share it…after the jump…with the Hall, in case anyone is stuck for something to cook this evening.


To get you in the mood, here is a clip of Dick Gaughan playing his arrangement of a Robert Burns poem, “Now Westlin Winds,” which presents the work of the poet in a form which I can understand, and is actually rather beautiful. When he plays it live, he says that he believes it says everything that one needs to know to get through life. I’m not saying whether I agree with his analysis, but it is rather beautiful.

I’ve seen Dick playing several times over the years, he played a blinding set in the function room of a pub in Northampton recently and afterwards I had the pleasure of exchanging a few words and shaking his hand. To say that he is imposing in the flesh doesn’t even begin to describe him, he’s a big bloke and stands as solid as a huge Scottish castle, impregnable against whatever hundreds of years of Highland weather is able to chuck at it. He plays his guitar as if he’s wrestling with a medium-sized sheep, and the noise that comes out of it as he plays is astonishing, barely requiring any amplification in even quite a large room, and he deserves a good deal more fame than has come his way.

Also hailing from Scotland, but by way of distinct contrast, Ivor Cutler was a very slight man, who started his working life as a teacher and progressed to ekeing out a career as a poet and performer, accompanying himself on the harmonium, with regular sessions for John Peel, the occasional radio series, and an appearance in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, all of which I remember being puzzled by until eventually realising that it was meant to look and sound like that.

His shows were extremely minimalist and very quiet, and very, very funny. I used to visit a friend regularly in Camden Town in London and several times saw Mr Cutler (as he insisted on being addressed) riding through the dangerous London traffic on an extremely elderly and far from robust bicycle while wearing a tea cosy on his head. I miss him a good deal, and think that there is probably room in the calendar for a very quiet gathering, a vegetarian (as he was) tea party perhaps on his birthday, the 15th of January, in honour of Cutler Night.


  13 Responses to “A Burns Night Celebration”

  1. That bed of lettuce on which the haggis is resting is a nice touch.

    Not to get off topic here but this got me wondering, what is the musical equivalent of haggis? I could dream one up easily enough (auto-tuned vocals and a steel drum solo over 80’s style gated drums and a DX7 backing track). But does such a thing exist?

    What is the best real life example of a musical product made up from various individually unsavory parts that is so nasty that is would cause most folks to think that it must be some kind of joke, and even though some people swear by it, it’s almost impossible to believe that they’re not just saying that to make some indecipherable point?

  2. Happiness Stan

    Firstly I’d like to say thank you to Mr Mod for adding the image of the tempting meal and the highly amusing clip at the end (which I’ve not seen for years and had me chuckling when I was supposed to be doing something useful, always a giveaway).

    When I became vegetarian I was regularly told by carnivores who felt threatened by it that cabbages scream when they are pulled out of the ground. I can’t even begin to imagine the noise that lettuce is making in its fervent but ultimately futile attempt to escape from the jaws of that thing.

  3. Would some people think Captain Beefheart is musical haggis? If so, I like haggis.

    For me, what you describe, sounds a bit like what I think of some band like Half Japanese or The Fall, but some folks like those forms of haggis too.

  4. alexmagic

    If haggis is the leftover parts that nobody else wants, musical haggis is…Chickenfoot?

  5. The poet of my people’s homeland!–though I’m sorry to say that I have never yet visited. I’ll be celebrating Burns Night this week, although not until Friday when I have some actual time to celebrate.

    I don’t have time to peruse these videos now, but they will be part of the Friday night festivities, which will also include a leeks soup, a haggis substitute, and several of the finest drams.

  6. My daughter is spending her junior year abroad at St. Andrew’s. I ask her every time we Skype if she has tried haggis yet. She scowls and says she’s not trying it. Lucky for her it’s winter break right now and she’s traveling in Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy (not sure where she is today) so she can miss out on today’s dinner in Scotland.

    Happiness Stan, are you from Northampton? I have a couple of dear friends who live there.

  7. Happiness Stan

    Hi Al, I do indeed live in Northampton. The way things are going here I would much prefer to live in Scotland, and if they vote for independence you won’t see me for dust! Your daughter is very lucky to be studying there and travelling around Europe, I hope that she’s enjoying herself!

  8. Happiness Stan

    That sounds very fine indeed, I hope you enjoy it! I’ll probably dust off Dick Gaughan’s “Handfull of Earth” album after everyone’s gone to bed and wish that I was north of the border myself.

  9. Wish I could remember the name of the pub I visited last time I was in Northampton. Maybe it’s the one where you saw Gaughan. It was the local for my friends and it’s where their darts league was.

  10. Happiness Stan

    Dick played at the White Hart – there are a heck of a lot of pubs around the town. Let me know if you’re heading this way again!

  11. jeangray

    “Both Sides the Tweed.” Super Great.

  12. I checked and the one I visited was the Whitehills.

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