Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote “Address to a Haggis” in 1786 as an ode to the dish made of sheep organs and grain. (Though perhaps he's even better known as the author of the song “Auld Lang Syne.”) Every January 25, on the poet's birthday, Scotland celebrates Burns Night. Happily, L.A. celebrates too.
On Burns Night, revelers recite Burns' ode to haggis as the dish is paraded around the room and then “slain” — sliced open and served — in an evening full of bagpipes, whisky toasts and rousing Scottish songs. Here's what you need to know about this lively holiday and where to celebrate in Los Angeles.
The centerpiece of a Burns supper is haggis — in Burns' words, the “Great Chieftain o' the Pudding-race” with “gushing entrails bright.” Traditional haggis is made from a sheep's heart, lungs and liver, minced with fat, oats, broth, onion and spices. The mixture is encased in the sheep's stomach lining and simmered for hours. The description is off-putting to many who've never tried the dish, but haggis is basically a lamb sausage with a noticeable oat texture and taste.
Completely traditional haggis cannot be had legally in the United States since sheep's lungs are banned for food use here because of bacteria risk. (Proponents for changing the law argue that using the whole animal should be encouraged in responsible food production and that Americans represent a large market for Scottish products and would greatly boost the country's export sales for haggis.) Several U.S. restaurants and specialty shops still offer the dish, omitting the lungs; and most modern haggis is made using sausage casing and not the sheep's stomach.
Haggis is commonly served with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes) and a glass of Scotch whisky. A Burns cocktail — whisky, vermouth, and bitters — has also become a popular drink for the festivities.
This year, local Burns suppers will be held on Sunday the 25 at Buchanan Arms in Burbank, as they have done for over thirty years, complete with the slaying of the haggis with a kilt knife; The Pikey in Hollywood, where their usual Sunday British roast supper will be tweaked to include haggis, Bruichladdich Scotch, Burns poetry, and a Burns cocktail; and at Beckham Grill in Pasadena, where you can also catch bagpipe performances and a haggis feast. Tam O'Shanter in Atwater Village will host two Burns suppers tonight, and the rowdy evening will feature step dancers among the performers.
These events tend to sell out. If you find yourself without a reservation, mark your calendars for next year and this weekend plan a celebration at home with haggis, whisky, friends, and poetry reading. If you can play the bagpipes and wear a kilt, all the better. Ye Old King's Head in Santa Monica usually carries both canned and frozen haggis in the pub's bakery and gift shop; call ahead for availability. Grocery stores like Cost Plus World Market and The British Connection in Torrance carry the canned stuff too, and several online grocers will mail you a freshly made haggis.
To prepare for the holiday, you can study up on Burns and his poetry here. Our own Besha Rodell tells you how to mix up a boozy Burns cocktail here. The whisky will help you get comfortable talking to your food, but if the haggis starts to talk back, it's time to ease up on the Scotch.