Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
The time of year has come and gone. That night where people lift their knives and address their food. But wi a larder more vast now than in Burns’ age, what pulls a better smile, an encased lung or a smushed kidney bean?
As blustered British broadcasters get in a spin and a roll at the suggestions that meat may be past its sell by date, what is it that makes people hold on so tightly to tradition? What is it that people think they are are replicating? And in its perseverance, is haggis not the perfect example of tradition in its most caricatured?
O wad some Power the giftie gie us,
to see oursels as ithers see us
The mealy meaty combination looked at with squirmed faces and confusion by people around the world. It’s seen as indicative of the ways in which people on the British Isle have approached a food culture through generations.
‘But it’s really quite tasty’, we say, ‘and it’s just one of the many examples of a rich larder of food and drink that we produce here in Scotland’. Cue slow motion videos of people eating fish and chips, laughing just a bit too heartily with friends and selling an idea that happiness can be had by coming to Scotland and consuming.
Beyond the need for our culture to be bought and sold, does an old idea of how things used to be done have to dictate how it is that we get things done now? What are we holding onto? A hark back to a simpler time? One where people produced with what they had to hand. Using the last remnants of the animal, to the bitter end, making sure not one iota of arsehole was wasted, the philosophy that they lived by was determined by their physical containment.
Though we romanticise that now and replicate it in different ways, does there not come a moment for self improvement? Some say the dish emanated from France, Scandinavia, the Romans and some say even England. When it arrived here, what recipe of boiled lung and assorted organs six inches away from bollocks is it that nailed it so well it could be changed nevermore?
This staple dish was created because of a need to be thrifty. Maybe that is one vein of tradition that should be followed greater than the technicality of ingredients. In a world of abundance, why not make haggis the symbol that rejects the over consumption of our age by using it to first and foremost bring people together.
Why not make it a veggie haggis?
Veggie haggis works in this way. It’s accessible. I’ve made it from scratch plenty for eight and eighty folk. On Christmas eve in a village called Montbrison, a French family washed down red wine and Old Pulteney with the Scottish conception. And it was neither much exemplified or diminished by its lang lack ae lung. Over fifty people from Australia to Yemen, Italy, Somalia, Syria and Spain dined together in Edinburgh joining the near one hundred international folk on another night who sat munching on the Meadows as they moved into one of Europe’s largest housing cooperatives.
On a practical level, bringing such numbers of people together over a meaty haggis doesnae really work. You’d either need a lot of money or a hoora shite quality of meat to cook in such abundance. And why would you want to? Flavour comes not so much from the meat as traditionally you’d be chucking in all the herbs and spices you could muster to mask the decaying innards. Flavour comes largely in spite of not because.
I put it to the reader that if you were to go back three hundred years to some Brigadoon’d land, traipse over bracken hills and muddy glens and find a family about to prepare this hallowed dish and you offered them a version of the same that instead of this hasteningly rotting meat, was laden with fresh carrots, mushrooms and lentils, they would look at their pot of entrails and think, ‘aye, why not?’.
Bring them forward in time and would they not look at the abundance of industrially reared meat and laugh at the excess? We eat it because they ate it but they ate it because they had to. For the majority now, hard work has been replaced by
laziness convenience and a dissonance and disinterest as to where food comes from.
Can the veggie haggis not also step up to the plates in international kitchens across the world? The flavours and allusions to the Scottish Highlands surely a more tantalising and edible prospect with vegetables and pulses than with the ends of meat that a world pillaged by variety will not eat.
Why would people choose to make auld haggis when there is a global recipe book of better ways to cook the left over remnants of carcass? Fostering a culture that does not waste is admirable but given that most folk who eat haggis don’t abide by that, one of the most compelling aspects of the meat haggis is still its kitsch value. And sure, it can be done very well but from my experience, it’s not something that people rush home to spread the word about. I met a Korean lad in Glencoe last month who just laughed and shook his head as I asked whether he’d recommend his meat and neep to friends.
Obesity soars generation after generation and nothing anyone does succeeds to abate it. How about we engineer the haggis as a way to teach kids how to eat healthier whilst understanding the history and meanings of the heritage and culture that exists for them? Rather than fears of starvation, this is the greater problem facing Scots today and would allow haggis to exist through a guise of purpose. We can relate with the past by dealing with our issues and being more understanding of what has come before.
Because tradition and history are inextricably linked. To hark back to tradition and continue to indulge in the meat of sheep is to ignore the historical factors that brought the upscale of Cheviot and other breeds onto the land we supposedly toast to. As families were cleared from the finer parts of arable soil to make way for these profit yielding mammals, culture of a deeper sense began to wither. Highlanders who worked the land and cherished everything they produced were manipulated by those from the outside (and some from within) who would seek to capitalise on the ownership of land they would begin to command. People’s lives were disposed of to make way for profit. And still the land suffers.
Those who sat at the top of this chain are also the ones we toast to the traditions of. As nearly one hundred and fifty years of the clearances took place sandwiching Burn’s death, the upper class members of the 19th century took to massaging the haggis mythology so many now take as sacrosanct.
They brought the kilt in to fashion too by the way.
In the vein of cultural gatherings that mark the commonalities between people, is that something people in the modern Scotland feel determined to uphold? Why don’t we set an example to the rest of the world and show that tradition can be adapted without losing but strengthening its essence. These markings in reality aren’t that important but some get so caught up in them. It’s how establishment goons break at criticism of national heroes and hat companies take charge of empires. Hold yir fork of pumpkin seeds and all spice and look and laugh at aw that.
In the lightness of it all, January 25th is most importantly a day for friends, family and strangers to set their heads together. Is it meat packed in factories that is needed to make that so? There is too much meat consumed on this planet anyway so can we not say that upon these days, our traditions are strong enough to shift. Whereas once it was rare, deid animal for dinner is now common so why not be bold and turn the traditions around.
For aw’ that and aw’ that
I hope however you had your Burns suppers, they were enjoyable and warmed the cockles during a stiff January night. For many that live in Scotland, this is an exciting time. The politics are changing and the sense of self is developing too. If people have counter arguments they’ll be listened to as I hope people who disagree will give time to this.
At his best, Burns implored folk to look at the world differently. And after over 200 hundred years, its fairly different. Inspired by his words, another poet articulated these sentiments in his own age and penned lyrics about changing times.
For Scotland, the veggie haggis could just be a dish for these times.
If you want to give it a go, this recipe from Peta works pretty good and can be adapted for whatever numbers you need. Boil off some cheap whisky, add oat cream, salt and pepper and you can serve it up with a banging whisky sauce.
Preparation time: 1 hour
For the Haggis:
8 Tbsp vegan butter
8 garlic cloves, minced
2 brown onions, finely diced
4 bay leaves
2 rib celery, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
A few big pinches smoked salt
300 g chestnut mushrooms, finely diced
500 g kidney beans, cooked
500g black lentils, cooked
100 g pumpkin seeds
100 g sunflower seeds
1.2l vegetable stock
2 Tbsp ground dried mushroom
3 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Fresh nutmeg, grated
2 tsp mustard
4 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
300 g rolled oats
- Preheat the oven to 175ºC (347ºF). Add the vegan butter to a large cooking pot and melt over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and onion and fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bay leaf, celery, carrot and a big pinch of salt, then fry for 5 more minutes. Add the chestnut mushrooms and fry for another 5 minutes, continuing to stir.
- Add the kidney beans to a small bowl and mash with a fork. Add to the pot along with the lentils and seeds. Mix in the vegetable stock, dried mushroom, spices, mustard, thyme and nutritional yeast. Add the oats and combine well. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture has begun to thicken. Transfer to an ovenproof dish and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.