Have you got the guts for haggis?
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the aftermath of Burns Night on Jan. 25, you'll hear this word — often with the disbelief and revulsion associated with a "Fear Factor" stunt: haggis.
But what are the facts about this enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a kilt wrapped in a stomach bag? And what secret test did we conduct with it on our own employees?
A small but growing number of Americans partake of the Scottish soul food ritual. Born in hard times, it roughly equates to other cultural food-dares such as lutefisk or chitlins or menudo. It's a culinary diversity-tolerance test. It's hard to find in the United States.
And it's this: A sheep's heart, liver and lungs minced, with suet, onions, oatmeal and spices, all boiled in the animal's stomach (which is not eaten). The recipe can vary, and there's even vegetarian haggis — which may seem even stranger than the veggie dishes made to look like meat with fake grill marks.
It's also nowhere near as awful as it sounds, says Harry McAlister, whose Caledonian and St. Andrew's Society of Seattle held its own traditional Burns Night, a celebration of Scotland's greatest poet, Robert Burns.
"I think people are surprised that it's not a bad taste," McAlister says. "It's really a combination of meat and oatmeal."
That taste is often described as liver-like and strong, with the consistency of meatloaf or hash. It's traditionally served with tatties (mashed potatoes) and 'neeps (mashed turnips) and washed down with Scotch whiskey — which either kills or augments the taste, depending on whom you ask.
The food represents the night, which represents the country — although that isn't the only time it's consumed, and plenty of chip shops in Scotland offer haggis 'n' chips.
Here's how it went down, so to speak, at McAlister's gathering and many others: First, a cocktail hour. A little fortification never hurts before facing the thing.
Then the haggis is "piped in." Not oozing from a vent, but preceded by a bagpiper and accompanied by kilted swordsmen. Then a speaker reads Burns' 1786 "Address to the Haggis," and slices the steaming thing open at the appropriate line. There's a toast to the haggis, a speech in Burns' memory, a lighthearted toast to "the lassies" and a cheeky response from them, often followed by song and dance.
About 190 people packed the Mountaineers Club for that event, while 10 percent of that number attended a private Burns Night soiree at the home of local food writer and poet Shannon Borg. She has Scottish ancestry and was looking for a good night to get friends together for a Scotch tasting. So why not bring on the haggis?
But, unable to track down the genuine article for her first Burns Supper, Borg, 37, says, "I wimped out and made a vegetarian haggis."
It's hard to find quality sheep lungs these days.
She cobbled one together — a vaggis, if you will — with walnuts, pecans, almonds, oats, onions, mushrooms, and a few other ingredients, using cheesecloth in place of a stomach to hold the glob together.
"It was really good, actually," Borg said. But: "Several people wanted the real thing. A couple of them were really disappointed."
As for Burns' poem, Borg said, "I only read a couple of stanzas. First of all, it's written in dialect, and I don't know what half the words are."
See for yourself. Here's the crucial portion, at which the object is ritually sliced open:
"His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight,
So where can you find one of these elusive reeking, rich things gushing with bright entrails?
Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats has sold python, cobra, rattlesnake, buffalo, ostrich and kangaroo. But never haggis.
"I let that one go to anyone else who wants to taste it," says owner Russ McCurdy. Even though he says at this time of year, "everybody and their grandmother is calling for haggis."
He says, "It's one of those things where they're using so many animal parts, it's really an acquired taste."
You can't acquire it from its homeland, either. According to the USDA, which regulates imported meat products, haggis isn't allowed into the United States because of restrictions tied to mad cow disease.
As with Cuban cigars, there are rumors of haggis-smuggling. ("Drop the haggis and put your hands above your head!") Lamb Etc. in Roseburg, Ore., may be the only American business that makes legal, USDA-regulated haggis. (It's online at www.tcfb.com/lambetc, which sells Scottish and Irish imports.) Run by Charles Lamb — yes, it's his real name — the company has sold haggis for about six years and supplies McAlister's group on Burns Night.
For $5.59 a pound plus shipping, Lamb will mail frozen, vacuum-sealed haggis in a sturdy, refrigerated container. "I have customers all over the United States," he says, reading city names from a big pile of invoices. "Every year, my sales seem to have doubled, and this year is no exception."
A former museum director now approaching 60, Lamb explains, "My granddad was a butcher, so I was used to eating organ meats."
Years later, Lamb started making haggis for a pipe band that he played in, and the labor-intensive endeavor grew into a business.
Lamb says the USDA won't allow him to use lungs in his haggis, but the real flavor comes from the heart and liver, anyway. The rest of the ingredients are traditional — including the stomach it's boiled in. And, he adds, "I do have a secret ingredient that I don't tell anyone about."
What's left to keep secret in a dish comprised of sheep guts? Lamb won't say. And he won't be left holding the bag. You must put the bag and its contents in perspective:
"Haggis has this strange reputation, and you have to admit we haven't dissuaded it. We've aggravated it," he says. "But it's no different from any other sausage. The difference is the casing that is used: instead of the intestine, it's the stomach."
And so, Lamb Etc. also sells haggis links.
As a public service, we ordered some haggis from Lamb Etc. and served it up to Seattle Times employees in our test kitchen. Except we didn't tell them what it was before they ate it. We told them it was a dish called "Country Loaf."
Ethically, this was far less insidious than, say, the U.S. government testing LSD on its own soldiers. And it was important that they went into it with open minds.
While boiling up the sausage-thing, home economist CeCe Sullivan sent the following e-mail dispatch: "Oh my God. The smell is something else. I had to put a pan of apple juice and whole spices on to simmer so I wouldn't throw up."
Several minutes later, she wrote: "I've added a scented candle and am now eating crackers and drinking Coke. I've only felt this way twice. When I was forced to eat creamed corn as a child, and did throw up on the kitchen table. And when I drank wheatgrass at a juice bar."
Test subjects were not made privy to that information. The "Country Loaf" was served with small pieces of toast, to spread it on like pate.
This was the typical initial exchange: "Country Loaf ... what's in it?"
"It's not so countrified," one employee said, chewing.
Urban Loaf, then. The verdict? She liked it and had seconds.
Other reactions were mixed. Two people nearly got to the door of the test kitchen with their samples on paper plates, then bailed without taking a bite, complaining about the aroma. Several described it as "spongy."
On a scorecard slip, one subject rated the taste and texture of the haggis 2 out of 5, but gave it a 5 for "visual appeal," leaving this comment: "I got a fishy aftertaste. Weird texture. Spongy." Fishy? Another subject said, "I thought it was great. Like party food."
The high rating for visual appeal was puzzling, because haggis can resemble a lumpy plate of tweed.
At any rate, the experiment was a success — in that OSHA was not called in when employees learned what they had eaten.
Scottish culture has always permeated America, from Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" to the Bay City Rollers. But with "Highlander," "Braveheart" and "Shrek" boosting the profile much more in recent years, TV commercials for McHaggis can't be far off. What music could they use?
Easy. Just turn to the Godfather of Soul: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com.