If there can be said to be a haggis season, we’re smack in the middle of it. Demand for the Scottish national dish — a large sausage of innards boiled inside a lamb’s stomach, which is to say, something very much like an inside-out sheep — begins to heat up around St. Andrew’s Day, at the end of November. It peaks tomorrow night when Scottish organizations around the world will celebrate the birthday of the poet Robert Burns.
Thanks in part to government regulations, the haggis served at those dinners will not be the real thing, or at least not the titillating recipe reprinted on a thousand souvenir Scottish tea towels: a sheep or other animal’s ‘pluck’ — liver, heart, lungs and other organs — blended with meat, oats, barley and spices and cooked inside the stomach. But unlike restrictions on other traditional specialties, say, raw-milk soft cheeses, the Americanization of haggis has provoked decidedly little hue and cry, even from the most ardent devotees of Scottish culture. In fact, it has been greeted with something like relief.
“I inherited my uncle’s traditional recipe, and it was kind of really nasty,” said Al Stewart, owner of Stewarts of Kearny, a Scottish specialty shop and butcher based in Kearny, N.J., that sells several thousand pounds of haggis a year. Mr. Stewart has eliminated all of the offal from his haggis except lamb’s liver. “I figured I wouldn’t sell a lot of it if it didn’t taste good,” he said. He said he rarely, if ever, gets complaints.
The practical reasons for changes in the recipe have to do with safety and demand. For one thing, mutton and beef imports from the United Kingdom have been banned since the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease, in 1989. For another, lungs are prohibited for human consumption in the United States, and the market for other exotic offal, like hearts, is so small as to be commercially unviable.
All of which seems to suit the organizers of Burns Suppers just fine. At the events, which will continue through February to accommodate the overlapping membership rolls of dozens of Scottish societies, a large haggis is paraded into the room, preceded by bagpipers. A reader then recites the poet’s “Address to a Haggis,” almost certainly the most passionate dialect poem ever composed by a man to a meat product. At the end of the recitation, the haggis — “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race,” as Burns had it — is punctured with a ceremonial dagger, the better to release its “warm-reekin” steam.
“You have to make a big show of smelling the steam and how delicious it is,” said Ian Betts, chief of Clann an Uabhair, a Scottish gay and lesbian organization, which holds its Burns Supper in February. As chief, Mr. Betts is required to taste a bit of the honored haggis, a ritual he seems to view the same way some members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club see their New Year’s Day swim: something to be endured as briefly as possible and then remembered fondly for the rest of the year. “It tastes pretty much like liver pâté,” he said, before adding, “I don’t like liver pâté.”
“We’re very traditional,” said Kitty Macmillan of the New York Caledonian Club, which expects more than 100 guests at its Burns Supper on Saturday night. “But haggis is an acquired taste. I don’t really want to know all that goes into it.” As it happens, the Caledonian’s version is made by Janet James in her home kitchen in Nazareth, Pa., and contains, Ms. James said, ground leg of lamb and “just a hint of liver, so it’s not overpowering.”
That last sentiment, at least, is endorsed by Jo Macsween, director of one of Scotland’s most venerable haggis firms, Macsween of Edinburgh. Liver, Ms. Macsween said, is by far the most domineering of the traditional haggis offal and must be used sparingly, if at all. A Macsween haggis contains only lungs, or “lights,” which, Ms. Macsween said, have a much subtler flavor. She takes a dim view of the state of haggis across the Atlantic.
“Nothing with ground meat in it can properly be called haggis,” she said. “In fact, I don’t know what you’d call it. Hamburger, maybe.” (That said, a quarter of Macsween of Edinburgh’s sales consists of an even less likely creation, vegetarian haggis.)
Ian MacAndrew, owner of Cameron’s of Kearny, in Brick, N.J., who makes his haggis with beef and beef liver, pointed out that the dish has always been made with whatever happened to be at hand. “It’s the same as with poor people in any culture,” he said. “When they killed an animal they used it down to the hooves. They’d sell off the good parts and eat the innards and the castoffs.”
Mr. MacAndrew, 53, is bald and wiry, with the powerful forearms of a man who has worked with meat since he was 14. In addition to haggis, which he ships frozen to Scottish societies as far away as Louisiana and California, his shop sells meat products like black puddings and pork pies, fish and chips, imported British specialties and Scottish-theme T-shirts (“Got Haggis?”).
Mr. MacAndrew estimates that since mid-December he has made about 500 pounds of haggis a week. One morning last week he stood in his kitchen in front of three large white plastic basins, one filled with a finely ground mixture of beef and beef liver, another with dry oats, chopped onion and spices (salt, pepper, ground cloves) and the third with the murky, greenish broth in which the meat and liver had boiled.
He emptied the meat into a large, shallow steel sink and dumped the oats on top. He stuck his arms elbow-deep into the pile and blended it with broad, gathering strokes. Next he added a bowl of ground beef suet, which would keep the haggis moist, and began scooping cups of the hot broth over the mass of meat and oats. He spooned a portion of the fresh, steaming haggis into a bowl and handed it to his son, Ian, a 24-year-old with tattooed arms who acts as his father’s official taster. The younger Mr. MacAndrew proclaimed the batch satisfactory.
His father placed a portion of the mixture into a tall, cylindrical press and stuffed it into an artificial casing. The skin swelled with liver. When the haggis reached about two pounds, Mr. MacAndrew tied it with twine. He switched to artificial casings, essentially stretchable wax-paper bags, several years ago, having grown tired of customer complaints about rips and tears. (Natural casings shrink when heated, making them fragile.) For those who miss the visual impression of a stuffed stomach, synthetic skins are sold printed with fake mottles and veins.
After stuffing several more small haggises, Mr. MacAndrew attached a larger bag to the tube. This would be a five-pound presentation haggis, to be paraded and pierced at the table. Lying among the two-pounders at the bottom of the sink, it resembled a mother possum surrounded by fat, sleeping babies.
For a food with an august reputation for repulsiveness, Mr. MacAndrew’s haggis was surprisingly, even disappointingly, edible. Tasty, even. Rich and meaty, filled with bits of crunchy onion and the mild sting of clove, it tasted like what it was: coarse, beefy, chopped liver. Mr. MacAndrew admitted that a tasty haggis runs the risk of destroying its own mystique. In the summer, the haggis off-season, he sells haggis at Scottish festivals where young male customers often dare one another to try a bite.
“They’re always upset to find out it actually tastes good,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If you want scary, go eat a hot dog.’ ”