Haggis – Peasant Food to Diasporic Icon

Written by Neil Gow on . Posted in food

Haggis - Peasant Food to Diasporic Icon
When the common question of country and food association is raised and the country in question is Scotland, two foods typically spring to mind – porridge and haggis.  While these two foods converge at one end of the food spectrum, in that oats (in the form of pin-head oatmeal) are a primary constituent of Haggis; at the other they have diverged to a significant degree.
Ann Hope succinctly describes this divergence in Caledonian Feast – “Strange that, while porridge was easily accepted throughout the British Empire – some would say it as an integral part – haggis remains a curiosity outside of Scotland, an unfamiliar object which calls forth defensive ribaldry in its own country”

Written in 1987, this nicely summaries how one food became globalised under the patronage of a significant geopolitical trend (arguably not the only globalising one) while the other lays redolent in a culinary backwater as a tourist curio dish.  For many, their knowledge extends no further than an understanding that it consists of an array of unappealing animal parts and a sheep’s stomach is part of the equation.

However, I believe that times have changed and while I still agree that haggis retains its curio status outside Scotland it has emerged from its backwater and can be used as poignant example to illustrate modern discursive trends of tourism, globalisation, regionalisation fast foods, drinking, industrialised food production and restaurants.  Before taking on each of these major themes in turn, let us begin with a short potted history of the history of the haggis.

The exact genus of the dish is unknown, but the staple that Robert Burns described as the “great Chieftain of the puddin’ race” can be traced back to Roman times.  In fact, there is a long history of offal-based puddings cooked in the stomach of the animal.  The precedent is a simple one – that of expediency and an interesting insight into how social status impacts the development of regional food icons.  On slaughtering an animal, the most perishable parts need to be consumed first and as these were often the least appetising they were often relegated to those undertaking the work, while the premiums cuts were reserved for those of a higher social position.  Anecdotally, the cookbook “Dinners in a Scottish Castleby Lady Glentrium published in the 1980s, while showcasing and extolling the virtues and quality of an extended range of Scottish fare and ingredients, fails to include a single mention of haggis.

With regard to Scotland and haggis there are the geographical aspects, where the ruggedness and inaccessibility of the terrain created a further need for expediency.  This problem was solved by taking the pluck of the animal – lungs, liver and heart – and cooking in the most readily available cooking vessel, the stomach.  In the course of its preparation, those other Scottish staples – oats and onions – were added.  While the exact historic path from Roman pudding to Scottish haggis remains an unknown, and to some a contentious, one – a French as well as a Norwegian heritage are often cited – the present day haggis has, in the main, been pretty much fixed for the last few hundred years.  As cited by an 1856 recipe by Lady Logan, the standard for that day onwards is for sheep’s pluck, typically lamb, pin-head oatmeal, onion, salt and pepper (local and personal pragmatic preferences aside).

Even within this standard adaption local practical variations did and do exist to address personal preference, modern tastes and levels of squeamishness: from a modern recipe by Dorothy Hartley that includes nutmeg and fruit, through haggis in a jar, to a pan haggis where the more confronting ingredients are omitted and a heavy pan substituted for the sheep’s stomach.

Whatever the variation, it seems that they sit happily under the overall umbrella of “haggis”, with varying degrees of authenticity.  This level of latitude is not lent to many other culturally and ethnically iconic foods and is may be one of the reasons why haggis is not detailed in the “Slow food Ark of Taste” or one of a number of United Kingdom food and drink products that have been granted Protected Geographical Status under European Union law through the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) regimes (the legislation designed to protect regional foods that came into force in 1992).

Given its position in the modern global psyche as a highly distinctive, if not unique, regional food it is interesting to look at how this position was achieved.  Aficionados of meat-based puddings might disagree, citing Polsa as an example.  Polsa is an early Swedish dish made from beef intestine casing filled with smoked beef pluck and fruit but I would argue that for the average food consumer haggis is pretty much top of the list.

Regarding that key topic of identity and identification, for many, haggis is synonymous with Scotland and, through the ode “Address to the Haggis”, with the poet Robert Burns.  While no doubt a significant amount of haggis was eaten and is still eaten without the specific reference to this poem, it could be argued that without it haggis would not have ascended to the level of national identity it has, as Bessiere references – “a heritage constructed” – by reference to a relatively obscure food.

This is an interesting twist to regionalism – where a relatively obscure food was used as satirical vehicle, masked within a broad Scottish brogue to promote patriotism and cultural protectionism.  In other famous examples of ‘regional’ food, the food itself is the promotional vehicle, be it a Margarita pizza, espousing the newly federated colours of Italy; the Croissant – the defenders of Vienna stance against the Ottoman besiegers; or the Anzac biscuit.

Unlike Brady’s stance on the American doughnut, where he considers that the doughnut can be deployed in different processes of social identity definition.  The doughnut as something typically American is not bound to its American context, but rather can cross borders and take on meaning for individuals outside of a purely American context – (Brady 1996: 3)– I think it very unlikely that the haggis will ever be anything other than Scottish.

The ultimate expression of this cultural heritage is the annual Burns night dinner in January, and to a lesser extent St Andrews night in November. This night is a celebratory confluence of all things Scottish – from bagpipes to kilts, whisky and unintelligible poetry.  As the Scottish diaspora’s primary link back to the homeland, it is this event I believe more than any other that has fuelled the “globalisation” or more accurately “relocalisation” of the haggis; the term coined by Delind in her journal article – ‘Of Bodies, Place, & Culture, Resituating Local Food.  A superlative example of this comes from Clarissa Dickson Wright, in her ‘The Haggis, a Little History,where sherecountsa tale of a group of Scottish expatriates, distraught at their inability to enlist the services of a local piper to appropriately accompany the haggis on route to the table, who organised a telephone hookup to an Army barracks in Scotland. Apparently at the appointed hour, thousands of miles away, the piper marked up and down and was duly reproduced on loud speakers in the dining room in Bahrain.

For many, it is the participation in a Burn’s night celebration that reconnects them to their heritage, engendering that spirit of discovery and power of the place so fundamental to Delind – allowing an individual the ability “to move beyond the creation of lifestyles through consumption and challenge ourselves to create places through acts of physical engagement and cultural identification.  This is a feature prevalent and fostered in the many global clan societies, particularly in the expatriate havens of Canada and New Zealand.  In these areas, commonly through cultural stasis, they have acquired a uniquely anachronistic look and feel, making them seem more Scottish than those still living in Scotland to the educated eye.

While the haggis has not been subject to the “MacDonalisation” prevalent on many other foods, it has in recent times been subject to a degree of  “globalistic” pull, where haggis producers are no longer only producing for local consumption.  In an age of time-poor driven culinary preparation and the highly sanitised offerings of many supermarkets, haggis is rarely homemade these days.  In lieu of this, as haggis has moved from a home-based “peasant” fare, the mantel of preparation has invariably been taken up by specialist manufactures, many of them butchers.  While the ever-encroaching regimes of government regulation have forced a general move to wholesale procurement of ingredients, niche players are still the norm.

As outlined by Beardsworth & Keil, inSociology on the Menu, one such member of the haggis traditional system is Macsween’s of Edinburgh, heralded by their website – http://www.macsween.co.uk – as the “Guardians of Scotland’s national dish” and supplier of haggis to countless exiled Scots around the globe.  Interestingly, in parallel with consumer demand driving a trend for globalization, is an issue of supply faced by Macsween’s that has necessitated a similar deviation from local and regional.  For example, while the lambs are Scottish they are processed in Ireland.  The dried onions are from Turkey and the casings come from Germany.

I believe one of the greatest hurdles for haggis, with regard to wider adoption, is the unappealing litany of ingredients that presents a chasm of food experience that many mainstream consumers feel unable to cross.  This chasm worryingly grows as generationally we become further and further removed from the realities of the food chain and as our main stay exposure to food becomes the beautified and highly stylised products of the supermarket.  It is somewhat ironic that the final presentation of the dish is often far removed from the mental picture many of the uninitiated have projected solely from the list of ingredients, whereas with other foods, such as an oyster, you pretty much get what you think; an interesting state of affairs given the near universal appeal of this shellfish.  The idea of eating haggis is rejected principally on what is in it rather than what it tastes or looks like.

Traditionally, the haggis seems to have, over time, morphed to accommodate a number of secular trends fuelled by both consumer demand and economic drivers.  For me the most notable one was the birth of the vegetarian haggis, a somewhat bizarre deviation from the origins of the dish but supposedly a highly lucrative one.  By Macsween’s reckoning, more than fifteen percent of their sales are accounted for by vegetarian haggis; an interesting statistic in the power of alternative food movements.

In this day and age of gastronomic tourism, haggis is seen to have an emerging role to play.  However, it does still suffer from the “tat, tartan and tourism” brush.  For many tourists it is possible to enjoy your multi-facetted Scottish experience without having to stray too far from the air-conditioned coach.  The haggis experience can be segwayed neatly and fairly non-confrontationally in the form of a stuffing for your chicken breast or filling for your baked potato, neatly side stepping the experiential food chasm whilst still giving the individual the ability to “notch up” another holiday culinary experience – that of eating a food that you would never dream of eating at home, but without having to face the true reality of the product.

Should one wish to recreate this culinary experience at home without falling foul of the multiple of contemporary food related travel limitations, the canniness of the Scots has come to the fore in the shape of a haggis vacuum-packed in a tartan bag, ingeniously called “The Baggis”; apparently immensely popular amongst many tourists, particularly amongst the Scandinavians.

One final interesting twist on globalisation and its effects with regard to haggis is that a hand-sewn haggis is now regarded as a luxury item and commands a significant premium, particularly when dispatched overseas.  Another ironic food reality where the most basic of cottar’s fare, using the less choice cuts of meet and store room staples, is positioned alongside fois gras and truffles in high-end food emporiums such as Harrods.

Arguably haggis will never appear amongst the ranks of haute cuisine dishes and rightly so, even when paired with those other Scottish redoubtables “neeps” and “tatties”.  As far as I can tell there is no historic tradition back to Escoffier, Carême or most recently Novelle Cuisine. Given the limited number of ingredients I do not believe it will stand the test of “deconstruction” to allow it sufficient novelty status to grace a two or three star Michelin menu, as the attempt is likely to render the end dish completely devoid of connection to the original.

It is also likely to miss out on a culinary facelift offered by the high profile trends of molecular gastronomy and foraged food, espoused through such luminary establishments as ‘The Fat Duck’ in Bray, England and ‘Noma’ in Copenhagen, Denmark.  However, I do believe it has a rightful and assured place in the bastions of “snout to tail” cuisine championed by the likes of Fergus Henderson and Anthony Bourdain where it is and will continue to be accepted for what it is – offal cooked in offal.

Scotland has long been a major offender in the world nutrition stakes, championed by its famous – or rather infamous – sweet tooth, and as a consequence is suffering the same long term health impacts as many other countries.  The only difference is that Scotland was a contender for the unhealthiest diet long before the fast food and obesity scares of the current decade fuelled by such books as Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’.  The Scottish diet, jokingly said to cover all the major food groups – fat, sugar, alcohol and nicotine, is for many not far from the truth and a major contributor to the diet and health woes of today.

Ironically, in contrast the staple meal of haggis, neeps and tatties is fairly nutritionally balanced, providing the consumer with good sources of vitamins A and C with a healthy measure of energy providing carbohydrate.  However, in recent times it has fallen foul of the Scottish propensity to deep fry everything – this in a country that has brought to the world stage such culinary delights as the deep fried Mars bar and most recently, via Glasgow, the deep fried doner kebab: a take-away dish so high in fat delivered calories that the establishment that created this after hours drinking nourishment limits customers to only one each.

Along with the Irish, it can be fairly presented that drink and drinking establishments play an important part of Scottish social interactions and culture – the themes that Thomas Wilson draws out with regard to the Irish drinking culture in his paper ‘Globalisation, differentiation and drinking cultures, an anthropological perspective.  While “these indispensable aspects of Scottishnesscan be a force for good,the more undesirable effects of the culture can be evidenced through the negative image of cultural identify of the post public house drinking session visit to the “chippie” for a haggis supper – deep fried haggis with chips, slathered in salt and sauce (a Scottish, vinegar-based condiment).

As pointed out earlier, until recent times haggis has had a relatively low profile, though both Queen Victoria and Johnson, accompanied by Boswell, are recorded as keen advocates of the dish.  The industrialisation of food production that so revolutionised food consumption seems to have had a much lesser impact where home production was the norm until much more recent times.  Within this change the effects of industrialisation are much more prevalent with regard to the source ingredients rather than the end product.

Scottish butchers traditionally would slaughter their animals on site, which not only gave them access to the key ingredients for haggis but also allowed for the continued home production, for those still inclined.  As with other time demanding domestic routines, this has fallen victim to the changed workplace dynamic of more modern times.  The rising era of regulation and compliance with regard to food handling and preparation, coupled with a consolidation of modern slaughtering facilities, has led to a general outsourcing of ingredients, referred to previously under the discussion concerning globalisation.

One further point worth noting on industrialisation is with regard to the standardisation of the sheep as the primary provider of the offal for haggis, replacing the venison and beef detailed in more dated recipes. Scotland has long been associated with sheep, particularly the Highlands where the rugged and often hard to access landscape is ideal terrain for the breeding and raising of sheep and not one for less robust cattle. However, sheep only began their ascendancy following the traumatic Highland clearances of the late 1700s, where mass land evictions occurred to allow for large-scale husbandry. Prior to that date the Croft-based agriculture only supported substantially smaller numbers of animals.  Was one the primary cause of the other?

As an aside, although the bucolic image of Scottish longhaired cattle is another beloved Ecosse iconic emblem it too fell victim to industrial farm practices.  Not only does the landscape of much of Scotland prevent the farming of large herds of these animals, though they are hardy enough to survive the climate, but their breeding cycle, once every two years, significantly disadvantages them against faster producing lowland breeds and marked their downfall.

In summary, although the haggis still remains a relatively unknown curiosity outside of Scotland (as commented upon by Ann Hope in ‘Caledonia Cuisine’ in 1987) it has, since this date, increased its profile to a significant degree through rising tourism and that massive vehicle for globalisation, the Internet and social media.  It has a firm place as a symbol of national and cultural identity and while agreeably not the most significant one – whiskey and kilts commonly springing to mind first – it can be considered the most iconic from a gastronomic level.  Such a position gives the haggis the ability to provide valuable touch points and insights across a number of important foodways themes.  These micro touch-points tracked through the gradual evolution of haggis – from a subsistence food peasant fare to the keystone of the Scots diaspora sustaining their sense of cultural identity – provide valuable illustrations outlining the macro impacts of tourism, globalisation, regionalisation fast foods, drinking, industrialised food production and restaurants as they affect the wider global community and Scotland in particular.

Image Credit – photo: Dan Bornstein –http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/02/13/haggis-next-kimchee

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Neil Gow

Neil Gow

Neil lives in Sydney, Australia and enjoys just about everything gastronomic. Originally from Scotland he has worked in most places at various times until settling in Australia in 2000. His work takes him to Asia and India including trips to the US and Europe. Useful research as he is currently studying for his Masters in Gastronomic Tourism.

Comments (2)

  • nick

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    The main thing is not to put the plastic cased ones in the oven, this results in a very strange dish indeed. Try to always buy the ones actually in stomachs. And I have eaten haggis in Michelin starred restaurants, but it’s always in very small quantities

    Reply

    • Neil Gow

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      I seem to recall a story from Julian Barnes of “Pedant in the Kitchen” fame about his brother who in an effort to impress his girlfriend cooked a pheasant for the first time. Apparently due to the oversight of the author neglecting to call out the need for a plucked bird in it went feathers and all – resulting in another very strange and slightly horrific result

      Reply

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