Thomas Fox Averill

The question, "What is worn under the kilt?" is often followed by a more complicated one: "What is in the haggis?

For years I heard about haggis as some horrible concoction of organ meats and oatmeal, as an inedible dish foisted on the unsuspecting (like Charlie Chaplin's shoe), as a kind of joke. Either the Scottish are trying to trick the rest of the world into eating the unpalatable--"This is our national dish, sure, try it!"--or the joke is on the Scots, who know so little of food and cooking that they might actually celebrate this terrible dish, might actually eat it, might respect it and pipe it to the table, and toast it, and make ceremony of it. Certainly, haggis, like the bagpipe that accompanies it to the table, is an acquired taste. For example, one day I was practicing my pipes in a public park, in order to give my neighbors a respite. On a nearby porch, a ten-year-old girl sat on a swing, obviously interested. I finished one set of tunes, about five to ten minutes of steady playing, and took a breather. She used the opportunity to come off the porch, walk right up to me and give me her opinion.

"I like the sounds you make with that thing," she said, "but can you play any music?"

 Piping a wedding, Danforth Chapel, Lawrence, KS I satisfied her by playing the Kansas state song, "Home on the Range," the only tune we both knew in common that I could play on the bagpipes.

I can imagine someone asking a smilar question about the haggis, perhaps tasting a wee bit, then: "Well, this is pretty good, but do you have any food to eat?"

Certainly, the ingredients of, and recipes for, haggis are as exotic as some pipe tunes. A look at my Scottish cookbook, with its recipe from the 1880s, only made me despair that I'd be able to cook haggis for my bagpipe group, on the occasion of our annual ceilidh (party). But one of our Pipers of the Plains, by day a teacher of gifted students near Topeka, is by night a part-time employee of one of the local slaughterhouse/butcher/meat locker operations. I called Steve Denny two weeks before the ceilidh. "An off chance, I'm sure," I said, "but does Valley Vista keep sheep organs after slaughter?"

"What are we talking about?" he said.

"Liver, heart and lights."

"Lights? That'd be the lungs?" he said.

"I guess so," I said. "And I need a sheep's stomach, too."

"You're talking haggis, aren't you?"


"Liver and heart they might have, frozen. Don't know about stomach and lungs. Tell you what, I'll see when we have the next sheep up for slaughter. Could be we'll get lucky."

"Great," I said. "I'll see you at pipe practice."

Which I did. Steve arrived late the next Wednesday evening, straight from Valley Vista. "We're lucky," he said. "Butchered three sheep today. I've got two stomachs, a huge liver, two hearts and two sets of lungs--they're out cooling in the truck."

There was no turning back. After practice, Steve loaded two boxes into my truck. "I'd wash those stomachs a little more," he said. "I only had a hose."

For an hour and a half I scrubbed two sheep stomachs, inside and out. Outside they were smooth, elastic tissue. Inside, they were tough and rough. The warm smell of grassy bile had infused them, and I washed an occasional fleck of grain out of the tough tissue lining the stomach wall. Though rough to the touch, that lining is at the same time very sensitive. Little nodes, or ridges, look and feel almost like sea creatures in tide pools, like anemones and starfish. And their function is the same: they absorb nutrients. Though a stomach is not an ocean, I was struck by the similarity of the underlying principle. Anyway, I scrubbed, and filled and re-filled the stomach with water, until, when I drained the stomach (both inside-out and outside-in) the water ran completely clear. Then I froze the whole kit and kaboodle of sheep ingredients until the weekend, when I had time to cook the haggis.

Saturday, when I studied my cookbook again, I realized I'd forgotten the beef suet (half a pound for each haggis), and that I had no idea exactly what form the oatmeal should take--whole or rolled. The suet problem was easily solved: Steve Denny brought me four pounds, saying, "Feed what you don't need to the birds."

"What do I owe you?" I asked.

"Nothing. I gave the boss a six pack of good beer. And you're doing all the work."

Since I hadn't yet cooked the haggis, I didn't know how true "all the work" would become.

Next I phoned my mother, who has eaten haggis on several occasions, both in the United States and in Scotland. When I asked her about the oats, she immediately went to her cupboard. "Come on over," she said, "I have some imported oats, cut, that cost me nearly $8.00 a pound. You want to use them, not Quaker."

She also had her own Scottish cookbook, with a recipe for haggis that I liked more than mine: less suet, more onions and spices. She loaned it to me, and I went home to cook.

Since I was starting with a clean stomach, I skipped the washing, and went to the next direction: scald and scrape, then set in cold salt water anywhere from an hour and a half to overnight. As I scraped, some of the tough insides of the stomachs came right off. I forced one, noticing that I might be able to peel away the rough lining, like you can with a boiled beef tongue. Some peeled, but then the stomach began to shred, and I lost one: I resigned myself to one stomach haggis, one so-called "pot" haggis. Good, I thought, since the recipe book my mother loaned me had recipes for both.

I boiled, for an hour and a half, the liver, heart and lungs. I toasted the oats in a shallow pan in the oven for a half hour. I diced six onions. I minced a pound of suet. I grated the liver into a very large bowl, then cleaned and minced the heart meat. One cookbook tells me that the word haggis probably derives from the French hachis, which means "to chop," and all my work made me believe it.

The next thing to mince was the lights, so called for perhaps two reasons: they are the same light color as brains; and they are, quite literally, light, floating on the surface of the water. Cooked, they take in liquid, and become more dense. Before they can be minced, the wind pipes, thin cartilage, need to be removed. This is easy, and fascinating--an anatomy lesson. The pipes are dime-sized tubes at the entry into the lungs. They branch, and become thinner as they penetrate the lungs, until deep into the meat of the lights they are no bigger than the thin threads of roots that grow on the bottom of a carrot, or turnip. They function, of course, exactly as roots do: they aid in the delicate absorption of the things necessary to life--fluid, oxygen--as well as help in the transfer of those things we need to get rid of--for the lungs, that's carbon dioxide. Lungs and stomach are both places where transfers, where absorptions, take place, and are thus interesting to contemplate during the long time it takes to prepare haggis.

So I minced the pipe-less lungs, added all the ingredients together with salt, pepper, cayenne, some sage and thyme, and mixed thoroughly, adding a cup and a half of the stock for moisture. Half the mixture I stuffed into the surviving sheep stomach; the other half I put into a large pyrex bowl. I sewed the stomach shut, then lowered it into water, which would be brought to a boil, then set to simmer for three and a half hours. During this time, as the ingredients swelled, I was instructed to prick the stomach "... several times with a needle, so it won't burst." I also added more boiling water, as needed, "to keep the level up over the haggis."

The "pot" haggis I covered tightly with aluminum foil, placed the pyrex bowl on a small rack in a large pan with two or three inches of water, and then steamed it for a couple of hours, adding water as needed.

I started the process at about three in the afternoon. By eight o`clock, the haggis was ready to taste. I took a large spoonful from the "pot" haggis, and tasted it. Wonderful. (But then I like liver, scrapple, and other cousins of haggis.) I took a spoonful to my wife, who is also of Scottish descent, but who had sniffed the air and made faces during much of the process of cleaning stomachs and cooking. "Hey," she said, "that's pretty darn good."

My daughter said, "I want some." So I brought her a spoonful. She put it in her mouth, tasted it, chewed and swallowed. "Bring me another spoonful, will you, Dad?" she asked. I beamed. My first haggis, from slaughterhouse to my house, years and miles from Scotland.

But the ceilidh would be the final test. My father also plays bagpipes in the Pipers of the Plains, and my mother joined the spirit of a ceilidh with as much "authentic" food as possible. (I immediately acknowledge that this Kansas/Scottish/to-the-best-of-our-ability/first-time haggis cooking might not be "authentic" food.) My mother had read that haggis should be served with "neeps and nips" and mashed potatoes. "Neeps" are mashed turnips, which my mother cooked according to her Scottish cookbook, along with potatoes. And "nips" are nips of Scotch whiskey, which my father supplied in the form of a fifth of single-malt, and plenty of shot glasses. They brought a friend who cooked delicious scones.

Somehow, a stuffed stomach on a large platter can look awfully appetizing to someone who has cooked and anticipated the taste for several days. To others, it can look just plain awful. But our small group--six pipers, four drummers, several students, and friends, and families--cheerfully watched as I slit the stomach bag and almost everyone dutifully scooped a spoonful of haggis on plates otherwise occupied by chili, fresh vegetables and dip, salad, and plenty of dessert. I stuck with haggis, neeps, potatoes and several nips, content to feel both well-fed and at least slightly authentic.

After the meal, the pipe band played a few tunes, my father read from the poetry of Robert Burns and Angus McKinnon, the young daughter of a piper danced the jig and a sword dance, a mandolin-playing friend of Steve Denny played a jig and a hornpipe, and Steve read from Burns. Before we all went home, I gave Steve a small bottle of single-malt whiskey, since I'd been given all the fine sheep ingredients and beef suet on the strength of his six pack of beer. All in all, it was a fine night, a very small attempt to keep a cultural legacy alive in Kansas, far from any enclave of Scots.

In the folklore class I teach with Kansas State Folklorist Jennie Chinn, we tell our students that foodways are the very last part of a culture to change. Haggis, and the gleeful eating of it, must be witness to that, for it is served at New Year's ceilidhs, at every Scottish Festival and St. Andrew's Society event of good proportion. Haggis, like so many other national dishes/delicacies, is not what is usually eaten, but what is traditionally eaten. There is a difference. The turkey, for example, is only now making the transition from Thanksgiving feast into the every-week eating of Americans (now that it is sold in breast meat steaks and in tubes, ground up). Also, national dishes sometimes consist not of the most common thing eaten, but just what people will eat: cow intestines in chitlins or in the Mexican version of menudo; frogs legs that are so associated with the French that Americans called them "frogs"; the blood pudding and scrapple of the Germans. All foul stuff to some, but either available, or cooked to avoid the waste of foodstuffs at the time of slaughter. (Blood, organ meats, stomachs/intestines, are all difficult to preserve, either because of density, or fat content. They are hard to penetrate with salt and smoke, equally hard to dry. And so they are used immediately.) Haggis embodies the legendary thriftiness associated with the Scots.

So, for whatever reason, what people will eat becomes a cultural identifier. And I'm glad to identify with haggis. I will gladly let it fill my stomach at the same time a cool breeze chills what is, or is not, worn under my kilt.

Note: The two cookbooks I used are THE HIGHLANDER'S COOKBOOK: RECIPES FROM SCOTLAND, by Sheila MacNiven Cameron and A TASTE OF SCOTLAND, by Theodora FitzGibbon (subtitled: Her World Famous Recipes With Nostalgic Photographs).

Return to  The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson

Return to  home page