This week, a headline in the BBC News Magazine caught my eye: “The Offal Truth About American Haggis.” This is not a misprint as I thought at first. It’s a clever play on words. I knew that haggis is considered Scotland’s national dish. And I knew that haggis is a “delightful” combination of sheep’s innards, onions, oats and spices mixed together and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. And, at a Scottish banquet I attended in New York some years ago, I heard one of the guests describing her haggis as “awful.” All this led me to jump to an incorrect conclusion about a possible misprint in this headline.
As I dug deeper, here’s what I discovered. Offal is a noun and can be defined as “the entrails and internal organs of an animal used for food; waste material; decomposing animal flesh.” Awful, on the other hand is an adjective meaning “very bad or unpleasant.” Consequently, thinking back on that New York banquet, the queasy guest could have been saying “this haggis is offal,” which is true, or “this haggis is awful,” which depends on your taste, spirit of adventure and culinary fortitude.
Haggis is in the headlines this week because Jan. 25 is the birthday of Robert Burns, the revered Scottish poet. Burns was so carried away by his love for haggis that he wrote: “Fair is your honest happy face, great chieftain of the pudding race! Stomach, tripe or guts: well are you worthy of a grace as long as my arm.” Sorta makes you misty, doesn’t it?
Burns’ birthday is celebrated around the world by loyal sons and daughters of Scotland. In the absence of the poet himself, the haggis is the guest of honor. Traditionally, a piper marches ahead of a platter bearing the delicacy which is paraded around the hall so all the banqueters can lift a dram and pay respects to “the chieftain of the pudding race” before they settle down and dig in.
The origins of the haggis are lost in the shadows of culinary prehistory. Traditions are numerous and colorful and, though I’m tempted, there’s not enough room to go into them here. But Jo MacSween of MacSween Haggis in Scotland says there’s a long tradition of “nose to tail” cooking in Scotland which leaves no part of the animal wasted. In America’s deep South, this same tradition gave rise to another offal dish known officially as “chitterlings.” But that’s a topic for another column.
What I didn’t know until I read Jon Kelly’s BBC article is that haggis — real haggis — is illegal in the United States. The problem ingredient is sheep’s lung. According to the USDA, sheep’s lung is just not a product appropriate for human consumption. But, according to Alex Massie, a Scottish journalist and former Washington correspondent for “The Scotsman,” “Without the sheep’s lung, it’s not authentic… It’s too sausagey… It lacks the lightness the lungs help create.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear the thought of haggis without that lightness.
Massie and others are waging a campaign to persuade the USDA to take a more fair-minded approach to the haggis question. Massie insists that haggis is the victim of a double standard. He points out that French Andouille sausage (which is the product of processed pig intestines) is a free and frequent American import. If this is true (and I suspect it is) one can’t help but wonder how sheep’s lung could be a greater health hazard than pig intestines. Anyway, this is not my fight and I’ll leave it to the clans.
Devotees of Burns and lovers of haggis aren’t deterred by bureaucratic obstacles. Faux-haggis is regularly paraded in place of the real thing during American celebrations. McKeen’s Haggis of Bangor, Maine provides a haggis substitute made of imported Scottish cereals and real U.S. offal (minus the lungs).
And here’s one of haggis’ little-known charms. It’s not just for eating. It’s for hurling as well. For many years, according to Guinness, Alan Pettigrew was the world champion haggis hurler with a distance of 180 feet 10 inches. He was overthrown by Lorne Coltart, who hurled his haggis 217 feet.
What’s more, anything worth eating is sure to be the object of an eating contest. So it is with haggis. The current haggis chomping champ is Eric “Steakbellie” Livingston, who allegedly wolfed down three pounds of haggis in eight minutes.
This year, I’ll be celebrating Burns’ birthday in the sunny climes of Hawaii. Instead of haggis, my menu will include island fish, tropical vegetables and a drink with an umbrella in it. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.