One of the frustrating trials and tribulations of contemporary culture is, of course, the obligatory Facebook birthday wish. From the thought-free exchange of a computer reminding you that your fourth cousin thrice removed has again made it around the sun, to the process of cutting and pasting “Happy Birthday, bro!!!” from the previous wall post, but adding that extra exclamation for effect — it all really takes automated well-wishing to a new low.
Thankfully, there's a birthday tradition that will undoubtedly never be so pedestrian, because, frankly, Facebook can't cut a haggis. We're speaking, obviously, about the Burns Supper, a two-centuries-old birthday bash for Scotland's favorite son and national poet, Robert Burns. And, yes, even thousands of miles from his homeland, expat Scottish Angelenos and Celtic culture vultures celebrate at least once on the week surrounding Burns' January 25 birthday.
The folks at Atwater Village's 90-year-old Tam O'Shanter restaurant and their appointed toastmaster, Dr. Neil McLeod, have been doing this event for more than three decades. On top of last night's event, Dr. McLeod will do this whole rigmarole dozens more times before Monday.
So, uh, what about that haggis?
We'll get to that in a second.
Simply calling the Burns Supper “the St. Patrick's Day of Scotland” misses the point entirely. Burns' birthday eschews the dilution and homogenization that has befallen Ireland's drunkfest. How could it not? There's the obscure, barely comprehensible poetry, there are sharp objects, there's a sheep's stomach packed with cooked sheep innards, and there's Scotch whisky — and not a single green beer in the room.
The California connection to Scottish culture may escape the uninitiated, but without Burns' “To a Mouse,” our beloved Steinbeck wouldn't have had a title to Of Mice and Men. To boot, Burns probably would have liked the cut of Steinbeck's literary cloth — like some of Steinbeck's heroes, Burns was an autodidact laborer — a proverbial ploughman with a pen of gold…and a bawdy sense of humor.
Like our native Valleyspeak, the lyricism of Scots language is best heard and not read. Unlike Valleyspeak, however, Scots-English lyricism has produced hundreds of years' worth of beautiful poetry. Burns, in that tradition, was a master of the common clave, with his “To a Mouse,” “To a Louse” and his more obscure “Cock Up Your Beaver” (calm down, he's talking about a beaver fur hat…jeez) and “Nine Inch Will Please a Lady” (OK, fine, that's a filthy one). Staring at a page of Burns' Scots-language poems is a tad daunting, hence the illegibility: “Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?” Burns asks a louse.
But, out loud, Dr. McLeod's performance needs no subtitles — he's perfectly intelligible and delightfully refined, a far cry from Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
Yesterday evening's festivities began with a tartan-decked procession of bagpiper Cindi McIntosh, drummer Phil Bowater, Chef Ivan Harrison and Dr. McLeod. Oh, and that haggis, flanked by shots of Scotch. They snaked through the Hobbit-house warren of Tam O' Shanter dining rooms — all to a sold-out crowd.
In a few short minutes, the haggis is praised, slain with a sword, and the whisky downed. All told, McLeod's hearty performance of Burns' “Address to a Haggis” beats the shite out of an off-key “Happy Birthday.” McLeod followed with a nontraditional rebuttal to Burns' ode — Monty Python's haggis poem, “Horace.”
Koni McCurdy, accompanied by fiddler Mary Barton, trailed through with a more traditional female rebuttal. Then, it was on to more whisky and haggis…and other delectable Scottish cuisine (not all of which was based on a dare, contrary to common belief).
“Oh, I've been slaying haggis for a long time. I would say that this particular blade has slain more haggises than any other blade in Christendom,” says McLeod after his sixth performance of the evening (and who knows how much whisky). “Whenever someone wants a haggis chopped up, I get a call.” He explains that he got his start doing so about 30 years ago when he had to stand in for a forgetful toastmaster.
What's with that haggis? “Nothing excites a Scotsman more than the thought that his neighbors to the south, the English, are revolted by what he's eating,” McLeod jokes about the much maligned sausage. So there you have it — the noteworthy offal-and-oatmeal-based mess is based on spite. Good to know.
The Tam O'Shanter is a natural locus of Scottish events (it also hosts a massive St. Patrick's Day shindig), and this week's Burns Supper ended with some Celtic culture kibitzing — guys in kilts talking about the next Highland Games, cracking kilt jokes. “Do you want to know what's worn under my kilt? Nothing…everything's in perfect working order!” says drummer and kilt-purveyor Phil Bowater with a wry smile.
Tam O'Shanter did four seatings of Burns Suppers over two days, and due to demand, will likely add a third day next year. Throughout the weekend, you can catch more Burns Suppers at the Beckham Grille in Pasadena, and in some other farflung parts of L.A. County.
All told, not a bad birthday. For a 253-year-old, Mr. Burns doesn't seem a day over 230. Oh, and Robbie: “Happy Birthday, bro!!!!”