I still remember the day. It was an ungodly hour, though some may say otherwise. At something like 6 AM I was being asked to clamor out of bed and make myself presentable enough for an hourlong drive to one of Georgia’s most popular (and controversial) state attractions. Bone-tired though I was, I managed to stitch myself together and catch a lift to Stone Mountain to volunteer at the annual Highland games put on by a gathering of a number of north Georgia’s Scottish heritage societies.
Knowing little about Scotland aside from kilts and bagpipes, my bleary-eyed self eventually found the experience quite illuminating, witnessing a plethora of traditional Scottish games and merrymaking. And of course, chief among this tradition of merrymaking is the food.
Having worked up quite a ravenous appetite by the time my shift was finished, several of my classmates and I wandered over to a food stand on our way out of the park, eager to sate our rumbling stomachs. And that’s when I first encountered that other great stomach, in the flesh: haggis.
If you know anything about haggis (which if this Guardian survey is to be believed you very well might not), you’ll know that it is a generous mishmash of various ooey gooey animal bits, largely taken from sheep. Generally consisting of a sheep’s stomach filled with chopped bits of sheep liver, heart, and lungs, as well as oatmeal, suet, stock and spices, haggis truly makes the most out of those beloved and floofy wool factories.
While such a combination might produce a generalized feeling of disgust among my (I imagine) primarily American audience, the practice of utilizing whole animals in cooking is quite common in most other parts of the world. I can still fondly recall a certain English professor under whom I studied waxing wistful about how his fellow countrymen are oft keen to eat plenty of “organ meat.” It should be of small surprise that such tradition extends to his cousins in the kingdom to the north, especially considering that careful academic study concludes that the practice of eating haggis likely originated in England in the first place.
But as I’ve come to discover in only the last hour or so, haggis isn’t simply a squickish dish scarfed by some strangers in a strange land but a cherished link to a way of being that was frequently harried by English imperialism. Every January 25th, Scotland and Scottish communities around the globe celebrate the birthday of Caledonia’s own bard, the poet Robert Burns. This “Burns Night” celebration often includes all the revelry that you might expect of stereotypical Scotland, including a “Burns supper” where the haggis is paraded out before a dinner party of eager guests as bagpipes serenade and Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” is read aloud for all to hear. It’s an ordeal unlike few other. As one proud Scotsman put it in this Economist podcast, even Americans don’t invest such pageantry into their Thanksgiving turkeys.
And yet, if you’ve had the chance to encounter a haggis on this side of the Atlantic, you’ll be disappointed to know that you likely did not eat the real thing.
Since 1971 the USDA has ruled that haggis is not fit for human consumption thanks to the presence of livestock lungs in the dish. According to food safety experts, it is possible that during the slaughtering process gunky, microbial fluid from the sheep’s stomach can lodge itself into the animal’s lungs, creating a potential biohazard. Which, in some sense, is rather crazy considering that you’re already eating stomach anyways when you eat haggis, so wouldn’t there be risk incumbent there too? None of which is also to mention that safe methods of preparing haggis have been known since at least 1847.
Still, the ban persists. Which means that calling back to that cool November afternoon in the shadow of Stone Mountain, I was fed a pervasive lie. While I thought I was imbibing a true Scottish delicacy, I was really only partaking in the best American facsimile. And in all honesty, it was awful.
Pasty, heavy, and almost gravely, the haggis I ate was immediately gag-inducing. But now I wonder if that knee-jerk revulsion I felt was misplaced. According to Alex Massie of The Spectator, a professed veteran of many an American Burns supper, our version of the dish is more akin to pâté than the true Scottish good stuff.
Has my gastrointestinal paradigm really been colored all this time by heavy-handed government regulation? I wouldn’t be a libertarian worth my salt if I didn’t answer, “yes.”
So, with new perspective, I’ll raise a glass this Burns Night to the savory pudding of sheep’s pluck and mince. Trapped though I may yet be by the pandemic, I can rest easy knowing that my first (and thus far only) at bat with haggis was not true in the truest sense. Perhaps when I can up and travel again, I’ll have to endeavor to find myself in Scotland next January 25th, at which point I’ll get a real authentic crack at the, “great chieftan o’ the puddin-race!”