Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ae Fond Blog

Well, this is fortunate. It's free-for-all week at Criminal Minds and so I get to write whatever I want on the 25th of January of all days. It's an important one in the Scottish calendar, being the (258th) anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. 

Who? Robert Burns. Odds are if you asked a hundred Scots "Who's the greatest Scot who ever lived?" you'd get the answer "Rabbie" from most of them. (Even people who don't think they know who he is, do kind of know who he is because he wrote "Auld Lang Syne".)

So that's how I'm spinning this: he was a writer and this is a writing blog.  He wasn't a crimewriter, but he was passionately interested in justice. A man of such humble birth that his nickname was "the ploughman poet", he never had his head turned by success, but remained in sympathy with the most unfortunate and down-trodden in society and was their champion, railing against unfairness and lampooning pomposity.  

One of my favourite poems of his is "To a Mouse: on turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785". It can move me to tears. It made me ugly-cry when Neil recited the first verse to the wee mousie we caught in a cup in our kitchen.

wee sleekit, cowrin tim'rous beastie
The second verse goes: "I'm truly sorry man's dominion// Has broken Nature's social union// And justifies that ill opinion// Which makes thee startle// At me, thy poor, earth-born companion// An' fellow mortal!"

His whole philosophy is right there. I believe we need his humility, wisdom and compassion more than ever now, so many years after his birth. 

But Burns Night isn't all solemnity. There's food, drink, singing, drink, men in scratchy skirts, drink, toasts, drink and a few drinks to wash it all down. I love Burns Night and I love my American friends who've taken it to their hearts so completely, I'm not even homesick anymore.

Except in one crucial way. I have to make my own haggis! It's impossible to express how daft it seems to have to make your own haggis. It's like making your own cornflakes. It's like making your own jeans. No one in their right mind does it. And I've done it seven times now. 

I'm almost good at it. But I want to look back to the first time I tried and it went horribly wrong.

Some haggis ingredients: don't ask.

World’s first Haggis Transplant and Triflectomy (from January 2011)

Scots have a long history of medical innovation: Simpson and his chloroform; Fleming and his penicillin. Now McPherson joins them with a pair of linked surgical procedures. One is illustrated below. No one needs to see the other.

Scene: kitchen in Calfornia. 
Time: late January.  
V/O: In a worrrrrllllld without haggis, one woman is on a quest to track down liver, find out the Spanish for “sheep’s stomach” and learn how to flirt suet out of Mexican butchers before Burn’s night commmmmmmes.  This [pause] is her storyyyyyyy.

The Spanish for “sheep’s stomach” is oveja buce but I never found one. So I made my haggis in a pudding basin, like a clootie dumpling, and there began the problem. Haggis for twelve includes a kilo of oatmeal. Let me share a secret with you: oatmeal swells. A kilo of oatmeal swells a lot. And the bowl I’d set aside to steam my haggis in wasn’t up to the job. I’ve got a bigger bowl, but it had a rhubarb and ginger trifle under construction in it.

So, despite the mystery of the missing liver and the flirty suet, the biggest challenge of my first home-made haggis was performing a mid-gestation transplant and triflectomy. Big spoon! Fish Slice! Spatula! That thing with the holes!


The patient recovered well and custard masked the scars. Then cream covered the custard. If only it had been dipped in batter and deep fried it would have been the perfect Scottish salad. (Just as well we’re good at medicine really.)

And the haggis was lovely.

Happy birthday, Rab. 

Happy Burns Night, everyone, for tonight and for Saturday, when I'm guessing most Burns suppers will be held (with drinks).

And remember: Your social status is just the pattern on the face of a coin. What you are inside is the gold the coin is made of.  I make a lousy poet, eh? Burns said it better: "The rank is but the guinea's stamp. The man's the gowd for a' that."  


Ann said...

A taste of your haggis, complete with monogram, is on my bucket list. In my search for a recipe, I found this:

"IMPORTS of traditional Scottish haggis have been banned in the United States since 1971. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long objected to one of the key ingredients in haggis – sheep's lung. No food for human consumption, whether made locally in the USA or imported from overseas, can contain sheep's lung.Nov 1, 2015"

And that reminded me of this:

"Samuel Johnson: In England we wouldn't think of eating oats. We only feed them to Horses.
Boswell: "Well, maybe that's why in England you have better horses, and in Scotland we have better men".
Conversation in response to Johnson criticising Boswell for the latter's Scottish habit of eating oats for breakfast.
As I heard it, the response was "Perhaps that is why Scotland is known for the quality of its men and England for the quality of its horses."

There are as many versions of this conversation as there are Scotsmen and their access to good whisky.

Unknown said...

I knew little of Robert Burns except he's beloved - now I have a better idea why. Thanks, and Happy Burns Night!

RJ Harlick said...

Happy Robbie Burns Day, Catriona. I'll toast a wee dram with you, but I'll leave you to enjoy your haggis on your own. By the way my maiden name was McLeod..

Anonymous said...

If you can believe it, I didn't know it was RB's b-day, but I was thinking of "To a Mouse" this morning. Steinbeck took his title "Of Mice and Men" from a line in this poem. Since I taught this book every year of my 27 as an English teacher, I also taught Robert Burn's poem. I never tired of either. I was thinking of "To a Mouse" because of what it says about man's relationship to time, an important theme in one of my old novels I'm trying to revive.

Susan C Shea said...

I was yours at the photo of the wee mouse in the cup. Mice are adorable unless they're eating the oats, but even then. My neighborhood, alas, has rats instead, although not the frightening Norway species New York City (my home town) is known for. Some time ago, hearing from you about haggis as not only edible but delicious, I came to realize that Philadelphia Scrapple is very much like it - the parts of an animal you wouldn't eat by themselves but that, cooked sufficiently long and combined with grain and spices, becomes something quite good. As to Robbie Burns, I had only the sketchiest idea, so thanks for that. And happy Burns Day to you!