Learning to stomach haggis at Scots' dinner

December 15, 2004|By ROB KASPER

YOU HAVE GOT to have a strong stomach, a couple of them, to eat haggis.

I discovered this about two weeks ago when I had my first taste of haggis during a delightful evening at the Holiday Inn Select in Timonium.

One stomach was provided by a lamb and served as the vessel, or casing, that the haggis - a mixture of sheep parts, oatmeal, onions and spices - was cooked in. The other strong stomach belonged to any diner who devoured the fabled, if grayish, fare.

There was no shortage of zealous eaters the other night as members of Maryland-area clans gathered. I watched in amazement as a 15-pound serving of haggis was dispatched by smiling Scotsmen in mere minutes.

This was the 199th anniversary dinner of the St. Andrew's Society, a fraternal organization that promotes fellowship and perpetuates Scottish traditions. Also on hand for the big feed, and dressed to the nines, were the reigning officers of local German, Irish and British fraternal organizations. Apparently, when haggis is on the menu, everybody is a Scotsman.

Some of the haggis was paraded with great ceremony to the head table. Pipers piped, presidents pranced, swordsmen brandished blades the size of telephone poles.

Meanwhile, bottles of scotch, including some really nice 14-year-old Cask Strength Macallan, were poured. It was my first evening spent with Scotsmen, but I quickly adapted to the rhythm of their proceedings.

As soon as I heard Roderick Alexander and his father, Robert, power up their bagpipes, I snapped to attention. Something big was about to happen. I learned to applaud all the speeches, but especially the brief ones, made by the orators. I learned to never turn down any offer of a "wee dram of whisky."

Indeed, scotch makes an ideal "gravy" for the haggis. So said William H. Buchanan III as he poured a generous serving over my haggis. Buchanan was the chairman of the dinner. I had met him about a dozen years ago when I tasted his Flameout Gonzales Chili in his Ruxton home. Chili, like haggis, Buchanan believes, is a dish whose components are best left undisclosed.

Buchanan was charmingly elusive when describing this haggis. Yes, he said, sheep had contributed to this dish, but the meat had not come from mere run-of-the-mill ruminants. Instead exceptional animals, "the pride of the laird," had contributed organs. Exactly which organs you probably don't want to know, he said.

Yes, there was some grain in the mixture as well. But once again, this was not ordinary cereal; it was exceptional oatmeal. There were also generous portions of black pepper, spices and other unmentionables.

Peppi's Meat Store in Bel Air crafted the 15-pound haggis that was paraded around the dining room and served at the head table. Supplemental servings of haggis for the crowd of 270 were provided by Omar James, the chef at the Holiday Inn.

Earlier, when the haggis was carried around the dining room, shouts of praise rang out from the men. "What a glorious sight!" exclaimed one. "An enduring staple of the common people!" another voice offered. Arthur M. McAra recited Robert Burns' "Address to a Haggis," and while the ancient language was mostly indecipherable to me, I did hear the words "tripe" and "gushing entrails " used in a loving way.

Meanwhile, I nervously eyed the portion on my plate. It looked somewhat like a sausage, somewhat like hash. It was grayer than I expected. Sniffing it, I was reminded of the aroma of milled grain.

I pushed a forkful of haggis into the large helping of mashed turnips sitting next to it. Then I dragged the forkful through a pool of gravy, said a quick prayer and swallowed.

It tasted like a meaty porridge, with a faint flavor reminiscent of scrapple. Exactly what organ had produced that "scrapple taste" was a question I didn't want answered. I finished my serving, but I took my time doing so. Buchanan and his fellow trenchermen were searching for third helpings while I was pushing remnants of my haggis into the turnips.

Once the haggis was dispatched, more conventional fare - roast beef, potatoes and asparagus - appeared. Spirited toasts were offered to "Scotia's glory," a recitation was given of the life of St. Andrew, a remembrance was made of recently departed members, a kilt was raffled off to raise funds for the society's college scholarships, songs were sung and there were hurrahs all around.

The all-male diners were very well-dressed, with some men clad in tuxedos and many wearing kilts. They were also well-behaved; cigars were pulled out but, to abide by Maryland laws, were not ignited in the dining room.

When the "sennachie," William Hay Kommalan, called for order by pounding a wooden staff on the floor, most of the raucous crowd complied. Once the crowd had quieted, Leslie Craigie, a soprano from Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Peabody Conservatory, sang lilting melodies. The bonnie lass was given a standing ovation by the Scotsmen and a portion of haggis to take home with her.

This year's gathering of the Scots was less eventful than the one in 1961 held in the old Lord Baltimore Hotel. Then, something went wrong and about 200 of the 500 diners became ill. Some suspected the haggis, but it was later found not guilty and suspicions shifted to the peas and other items on the menu.

I enjoyed my recent diner with the Scotsmen, who struck me as cordial, fun-loving gentlemen. As for the haggis, it seems to me to be an acquired taste. I was, however, very fond of the "gravy."

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