I’d never eaten out of a sheep’s stomach before. Not until this week, that is, when I found myself joining a bunch of grown men, pillars of society all, to recite poetry in a strange language and chow down on the interior organs of a sheep.
Surprisingly, not everybody has heard of the rituals and traditions surrounding the annual event known as Robert Burns Night, probably because when you begin to talk about eating various sheep innards, it tends to stop conversation quicker than you can say “Ewww.”
To the uninitiated, Robert Burns is known worldwide as the National Poet of Scotland. One of his biggest hits was Auld Lang Syne, which may or may not be a song about New Year’s Eve. See, way back in the 1700s he wrote epic poems and lyrics in something called the Scots language, which I believe was foreign even to Scottish people. And since the Scots language sounds a lot like one of the Muppets speaking pig Latin, it’s quite possible that no one understood a single thing he was saying, then or now — which, after all, is the very definition of poetry. And which may explain the eating of the sheep’s entrails.
People seemed inspired to chow down after Scotland’s beloved bard wrote a long poem where he speaks directly to the cooked sheep’s stomach. The sheep’s stomach in question is of course haggis, which most people have heard of and most people go to great lengths to avoid.
Haggis — that infamous Scottish concoction — is a dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with other yummies like onion, oatmeal and suet and the whole mush is stuffed to the breaking point into a sheep’s stomach (presumably removed from the same sheep responsible for the heart, live and lungs). The result, which looks like a giant sausage, is then boiled for three hours or until it might be less than completely raw.
But the haggis isn’t just chopped up and dished out like some common meat that is actually edible. No, suddenly the unmistakable sound of bleating bagpipes fill the room, and everybody stands reverently and the piper and several other men in kilts enter in single file. One of them is holding high a large tray out in front of him, containing what looks like a giant slug sprawled there on the silver platter, and he is followed by a man with a large knife on his kilt belt, and then perhaps the most important one of all, a fellow with a tray holding a large bottle of Scotch whisky and numerous glasses. For many, this is the secret of eating haggis — a generous shot or two of whisky before and after.
They stop at a ceremonial table in the middle of the room, and this is where Robert Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited to the slug on the platter, which nobody understands on account of it’s recited in that 300-year-old Scots language dialect. After the addressee is finished talking to the haggis about things like “Painch, tripe, or thairm” for eight long verses, he draws his huge knife and slashes the sheep intestine casing open, and the haggis comes spilling out like, well, exactly like you would image stuff would come spilling out of a stuffed stomach.
Everyone applauds enthusiastically, and the haggis paraders crack open the Scotch whisky and the evening proceeds even more enthusiastically from that point on.
My good buddy Gary and myself were guests of our generous friend Richard and his son Mike at this auspicious gathering at the Masonic Hall — a first for both Gary and me.
Funny, when I was a kid going to Central School just down the street I used to help deliver the Advocate in that area, and every time we passed the Masonic Lodge my buddies and I would slink by the hall, telling outrageous stories about the secret goings-on inside there, most of which involved sacrificing sheep on an alter. And we never missed a chance to bring up the joke that they were supposed to sacrifice virgins but couldn’t find any. But here I was all these years later, in that very hall, getting ready to eat sheep bits, the soundtrack of the Twilight Zone echoing clearly in my head.
Turns out, it was a jovial, enjoyable evening with a great many toasts, and many good upstanding and welcoming gentlemen in attendance, and there was a full buffet dinner of delicious normal food, like cooked cow, in addition to the haggis.
We had to try the main feature, of course. We wouldn’t want to offend our Freemason hosts, because you never know what goes on upstairs in the lodge, so I took a forkful from the stomach casing and Gary, being more polite, and possibly more optimistic, took a good heaping spoonful of what sort of resembled the stuffing in a Christmas turkey.
It tasted to me like a lot like liver, which perhaps is what most internal organs taste like, and thing is, I don’t particularly like liver. But Gary, who apparently does like liver, loved the haggis and, get this, actually went back for more. Young Mike had a huge pile of haggis on his plate out-proportioning the roast beef. “I come every year just for the haggis,” he said. “It’s awesome!”
I just looked at him with a small, painful smile of sympathy, reaching for the Scotch.
So although my heritage is in fact Scottish, I guess I’m not much of a Scot when it comes to haggis. But I shouldn’t be surprised that my ancient kin-folk came up with a meal of sheep’s organs. After all, isn’t Scotland responsible for inflicting on the world such craziness as golf, curling, tossing telephone poles, and wearing man-skirts?
Still it was an enjoyable night thanks to the Beacon Lodge, and after all — it was Robert Burns 252nd birthday — as good a reason as any to eat interior sheep bits.
As long as you don’t get too far away from the Scotch.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate.