This is a work-in-progress. Please do not copy or use any portion of this essay without the author's written permission. | April 23rd, 2017
Burns Night Supper in June Andrea Broomfield
It was decidedly the wrong time of year for a Burns Night Supper. In place of a frigid, black night with the whiskey decanter catching light off the roaring fire, it was midsummer in East Lothian, Scotland, that magical time when daylight and nightlight merge. Bright stars glinted in the east while the sun lazily hung on the horizon in the west, assuring us that bedtime was hours away--if it were to arrive at all. Our party moved from dining room to garden as Ross turned up the volume so that the lilting strains of a Strathspey made their way through the flung-open doors. We tipsily and laughingly danced, glad that the wrong season gave rise to a different sort of after-dinner merriment than what typically happens after such a supper in January--a final glass of whiskey and a warm bed.
On my first visit earlier that spring to meet my distant relations in East Lothian, I enjoyed sustained exposure to the topics that most engaged them, from cultural and political tensions along the Scottish and English border to how Arthurian legends kept the ancient Celtic past alive, given the landmarks that dotted the surrounding countryside. We discussed why whiskey mattered, and how it was essential for Scots to be responsible stewards of native flora and fauna. My aunts, uncles, and their grown children and in-laws were all committed beekeepers, fishers, hikers, and gardeners, and in those days of early retirement, Uncle Ron and Aunt Margaret had begun seeding a forest of 3,000 oaks in their determination to return a portion of their land to the ancient forest it once had been.
It was Ross’s and Diana’s decision to treat me to a Burns Night Supper in June. I was nearing the end of my year as a study-abroad student at Exeter University, preparing to take exams and return home to the United States, and so there was a sense of finality to this visit. On one level, I understood why this meal mattered to my extended family. They wanted me to see it done properly, to give me, a British Literature major, a deeper understanding of Burns’ importance to Scottish identity, and of course, they also wanted to leave me with a lasting memory of Scottish hospitality, the most important value of Scottish people as a whole. I appreciated their gestures tremendously, but it would be some years before the full significance of that meal and celebration revealed itself to me.
I was not a complete novice when it came to the ritual of Burns Night Suppers. I knew how the evening at Ross and Diana’s would unfold and what the running order would look like. That past January, I had been invited by my house warden to sit at Duryard Hall’s High Table for this annual feast and had enthusiastically accepted the offer. However, even before the event officially began, when High Table guests gathered for sherry in the library drawing room, something felt a kilter. It would be incorrect to suggest that Burns Night Suppers around the world--including in Scotland--are not a terrific excuse to party, because they are. But by the end of the Duryard iteration, it felt as if the participants were partying at the expense of the Scots, rather than in solidarity with them. An undercurrent of English snobbery and upper-class entitlement infected the celebration, perhaps more apparent to me because I was an outsider, but also more apparent because I had been casually dating Robert, a student from Fife who lived at Duryard as well. Because of him, I could sometimes see and interpret English behavior from his vantage point as well as my own.
Robert was a lot of bluster and hijinks, spirited, and oftentimes speaking an exaggerated Scottish brogue decibels above other students at dinner; however, he showed a different side of himself when conversing with Duryard’s head porter, a fellow Scotsman known by all students as “Jock.” Because my relationship with Robert was non-committal, he did not trust me to the point of showing his more genuine self--except when I was lucky enough to be with him when he was speaking with Jock.
I should pause to point out that at this time, the late 1980s, Exeter University students as a whole came from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and countries, but Duryard attracted a high number of “Sloane Rangers” or “Hoorah Henries” (or rahs, as they are also known): undergraduates with social and professional connections, public school backgrounds, family money, and some land. A smaller elite--derisively known as toffs--sported hereditary titles. Regardless of whether they were Sloanes or toffs, the majority of them were privileged, and proudly English. I occasionally witnessed incidents of their snobbery and rudeness towards the staff, and the sting of such encounters never left me. One morning, I was finishing a late breakfast in our dining hall, and a young woman with her magenta cashmere scarf flung dramatically over her shoulder stalked in and barked at an attendant about the lack of fresh marmalade on her table. She then threw the marmalade dish to the floor where it shattered while the remaining marmalade skidded across the freshly mopped lino. She flounced out while the attendant meekly started mopping up the mess. Witnessing the scene, I felt ashamed of my romantic misconceptions of the English, misconceptions that had motivated me to study for a year in England. The gentleman who greeted students at the beginning of the refectory line was an Irishman derisively known as “Paddy”. “Chars,” women in smocks who cleaned our rooms every morning, were invisible--unless a dustbin was left unemptied. Jock was “Jock” only because he was Scottish, Robert explained to me when I naively asked what Jock’s last name was and found out that it was a catch-all term that English people often used to acknowledge a Scotsmen when they were too lazy to find out, or care about, the man’s given name.
I suspect, however, that Robert and Jock both experienced at times a need to be acknowledged, and the easiest way of doing so was to draw attention to themselves by playing the stereotypical role of “The Celt”--a role that had been defined by the Romans as early as the 4th century BCE when the Mediterranean world expanded and made inroads into Atlantic-facing nations. Mediterranean people developed a philosophical framework in which to “present and understand these frightening people from the North,” and so a portrait emerged that was “generalized, selective, and exaggerated--yet it contained a basis in reality,” the noted archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, writes.
That portrait has persisted over the centuries and even today has a bearing on how the English, particularly those in the West Country where Exeter is located, perceive and relate to those who came from the so-called Celtic Fringe--and how, in turn, Robert and Jock played the parts at Exeter when they demanded notice. Both exhibited war-mad, quick-to-battle attitudes: Jock lorded his (limited) authority over the students, making noisy rounds at night with his flashlight (torch) to ensure that no male was in Jessie Montgomery, the sole all-female house at Duryard. Woe to the lady if Jock caught her with a gent after hours-- or so Jock threatened, always on the lookout for confrontation. Robert exhibited that attitude most to his honor on the pitch while playing for Exeter University’s rugby team. To swagger into the refectory fresh after a match, sporting fresh bruises and cuts to his face and arms was Robert at his finest, when he inevitably could raise some hoorahs from the table. Both men came off as impetuous, foolhardy, but also brave. Jock, for example, showed no hesitation to speak his mind, even in situations where angels would fear to tread (particularly when they involved the Reverend Doctor, our senior warden who, among other things, administered Communion every morning in Duryard’s library). They were both exceedingly fond of drink, or at least they talked a good game. They were flashy and boastful, with Robert blasting his trombone to awaken residents from sound slumber on Sunday mornings. Both were vain in victory and abject in defeat, manifested by Jock’s exuberance when his favorite team won the Scottish Cup, or when Robert sullenly refused to speak to me or anyone else during a meal because of a defeat on the rugby pitch. And so on. Stereotypes, in other words, but with some bases in reality.
But in those rare incidences when I saw Robert and Jock drop their act, they fell into patterns and conversations that struck me as boringly “normal,” far-removed from the immediate goings on of Exeter and the pages of Country Life and Tatler. Instead, they referenced events, people, and places that mutually interested them but about which I knew little; they also--and this I found most revealing--made snide and sarcastic comments about England and the English, and how homesick they were for the North and families left behind.
And so for my first Burns Night Supper, this knowledge made me more astute than I would have been otherwise. The affair reminded me of a “Tyrolean Abend” that I had been subjected to a few years earlier when, as part of an American high school exchange program, we were booked for a canned evening of entertainment in Innsbruck, Austria. While we ate bad wurst and watched Schuhplattler dances done by goofy overweight men in lederhosen, we were presumably getting an education as to what “Austrian” meant. As a guest at Duryard High Table, I felt as if we diners were an audience privileged enough to have front-row seats for the acts that were about to unfold, albeit with the actors dressed in tartans and carrying bagpipes rather than sporting lederhosen and Alpine horns.
The “British,” exemplified by John Bull and the Union Flag, means the “English” more often than not, and the English eagerly embrace its Celtic fringe when it best serves their purposes, for nostalgic reasons, for instance, or when the reserved, fair-minded, reticent, and respectable English wish to embrace their inner Britons. Burns Night is perceived by the English as a harmless affair that celebrates the Scottish version of the American Noble Savage, that untutored crofter with his wee dram of whiskey, his rough food, and his theatrical tendencies. It was not, at least prior to the Referendum and Brexit, a dangerous geopolitical manifestation of Scottish nationalist impulses, but merely an excuse to “let down one’s hair” and “lift up one’s kilts.”
Admittedly, I was too untutored myself that night to be thinking such complicated, ethnographic thoughts when Robert exchanged his horn for his bagpipes and blasted onto the dais with Jock stiffly coming in behind him wielding the silver platter with the resplendent haggis and silver dirk. What I did sense, however, was that Englishness prevailed, or more explicitly West Country Englishness, that Country Life pastiche of manor house and stable thoroughbreds, fox hunts and balls, all neatly hedged into the landed families’ property borders. For while both Duryard’s warden and sub-warden were actually Northerners--not West Country folk--and while I was an American (and thus even more suspect in regards to credentials as the lot of them) we all wished to Belong, to be aligned with that most coveted West Country English sensibility. Even Robert and Jock, for all their pride and disdain for the English, played along willingly enough.
I still had that Burns Night Supper in mind when I made my way to Scotland the first time that March to meet my extended family. None of us knew what to expect from one another, but we were anticipating a friendly visit based on letter exchanges and phone calls regarding the logistics of my two-week visit. I was meeting my father’s side of the family. His brother, my uncle Gene, had married Aunt Doris while he was stationed in London at the end of World War Two, and although they had moved to the United States, Aunt Doris’s family still lived in the UK. As I had hoped for, we all immediately took to one another. I was an eager listener, taking in everything they told me, interested in all the goings-on of their lives in Gifford, Peebles, and Haddington, and I was also eagerly taking in the food. Uncle Ron kept bees, and I fell in love with both the thick heather honey and the runny apple blossom honey that graced Aunt Margaret’s scones. They maintained fruit trees and cultivated raspberries and strawberries that became the fruit wine served at dinner each night. They had a supply of game from their neighbor, and their liquor cabinet held a formidable array of whiskeys. They enjoyed strong, hot tea that was always at the ready on their wood-burning kitchen stove. I don’t remember clearly at this point, but I assume that during this March visit, I brought up the Burns Night Supper at Exeter and conveyed my disappointment. Diana, Ron and Margaret’s daughter, and her Aberdonian husband, Ross, promised to redo the supper on my next visit, and to do it properly.
Perhaps this remote, extended, family detected in my love of food something that I had yet to detect in myself: that I best understood the world by paying attention to what, and how, and when, and why people ate. I was considering, albeit without purpose or direction at that point, what food suggested about life far beyond the fundamental fact of physical sustenance. I had not found the Duryard Burns Night Supper disappointing because the food tasted bad--I am not by any stretch of the imagination a gourmand or a foodie-- but rather, because of the way that the food’s taste and presentation seemed to communicate English superiority towards the Scots, including Robert and Jock. Sure: I would have liked to have had a delicious-tasting meal--who would not? But what I wanted more than good-tasting food was communion and solidarity. With my relatives in Scotland, we all implicitly understood the food as integral to Scottish history and identity as were the tartans and bagpipes. Again, I could not have articulated that as a twenty-year-old Study Abroad student, but most likely Ross and Diana put me on my way towards that revelation after our Burns Night Supper in June.
The warm, late spring evening found us all in the best of spirits, dressed in our finest for the affair with Ross in his kilt. We did indeed sip a lot of whiskey that night and drank far too much red wine, and there was a great deal of laughter and joking as well--elements that on the surface resembled the Burns Night at Duryard. However, the mood did not seem forced, and more importantly, it was not so staged, so choreographed. The supper that midsummer’s night was not a rushed affair but spread out over some hours, with the first course a traditional cock-a-leekie soup that was preceded by the Selkirk Grace said by Uncle Ron: “Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad meat that want it, We hae meat an’ we can eat, And sae the Lord be thank it.” The piping in of the haggis had to be done by a record on the stereo, given that none of us knew how to pipe, but nothing was lost in the ceremony. This was indeed the real thing, a haggis prepared by local butcher who agreed to Ross’s request to make one at what had to be considered an odd time of the year. Haggis might be consumed routinely in Scotland, but in fall and winter, not late spring and summer.
Haggis is not a uniquely Scottish food, although its importance to Scottish identity is undeniable for reasons that Robert Burns offers in the famous “Address to the Haggis”:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin’- race! Aboon them a’ ye tak’ your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye worthy of a grace As lang’s my arm.
To ensure that I understood, Ross read it again in his best rendition of a BBC announcer’s voice: “Fair full your honest, jolly face, / Great Chieftain of the pudding-race! / Above them all you take your place, / Stomach, tripe, or intestines: / Well are you worthy of a grace / as long as my arm.” For Robert Burns and Ross in particular, the native-born Scot among us all, haggis symbolized what the Scottish race ideally must be: straightforward, honest, unpretentious. The slaughtered beast’s heart, liver, and lungs--its most perishable but also most sacred, vital parts --are minced and mixed with herbs and spices for robust flavor, and then it is mixed with oatmeal, the staple of the Scottish diet when all else had largely been taken from them due to the English Land Clearances. Oatmeal is of course more than symbolic; it also soaks up the luscious fat that emanates from the haggis filling and helps to create a soft, “more-ish” texture that works exceptionally well with the mashed neeps (turnips) and champit tatties (potatoes mashed with scallions, cream, and butter) with which the haggis is served.
I was admittedly a bit anxious about this food because the Duryard version had not gone down so well. I still could not envision liking a food that was literally cooked inside an animal’s stomach, and I had never cared for offal. And yet, I was so rightly in the spirit of things that night in East Lothian that I was confident that this time, I would like it well enough. How wrong I was: I loved it. When Ross plunged his dirk into the haggis, and when its filling--its “gushing entrails bright”--came falling out, it truly was “a glorious sight, Warm-reekin’, rich!” as Burns himself enthuses in the third stanza of his “Address.”
But my taste for haggis was also enhanced by the underlying solemnity and respect for this occasion; what I was eating gave me the sense of an ancient culture that evolved in a harsh climate where ingenuity and courage had to be present for people to secure enough to eat, and where the animals that did ultimately die had to be thanked for their sacrifice. As we ate, Ross explained about the symbolic and fundamental importance of the accompanying vegetables, how the turnip was grown by wealthy English landowners as animal fodder, but how it became a vital staple of the crofters’ kailyard. Even the word kailyard was evocative; brassicas, along with root vegetables, are about the only fresh vegetables one can grow during those long, cold, rainy autumns, winters, and early springs.
After we sat back, groaning with good food and nearing a state of drunkenness, Ross rose from the table and began the next part of the evening’s entertainment: Scottish country dancing. It reminded me, as we laughed while Ross called the commands, of an American square dance, and it occurred to me that it made sense, given how thousands of starving Highlanders had immigrated to North America as their own lands and foodstuffs were taken from them by the English. Their culture was in important ways grafted into American identity, including my own. By the end of the evening and the beginning of morning, with the violet hours finally changing into indigo, we finished our dancing. Lolling around in the sitting room, we indulged in what I think to this day is my favorite Scottish dessert: Cranachen, a Scottish sort of trifle where raspberries are layered with cream crowdie, a soft cheese accented with whiskey, toasted oats, whipped cream, and heather honey. As we spooned the luscious concoction into our mouths, I knew that this night would never leave my memory.
Indeed, it did not, although for the first year or so after it happened, my memories were more about the sheer luck and joy of finding kinfolk six thousand miles away from home, people who welcomed me and gave me a sense of my own roots. But as time has passed, I came to realize that the evening had also given me a window into a culture that deserved study in its own right; the food acted as portal to a deeper understanding of more than just my family roots, but also the complex and rich culture of a Celtic people and a Celtic nation. From there, I was motivated to begin my career as a food historian, leaving behind a study of the lyric as a literature professor, and instead taking up the study of a menu, of the food on the plate. At the end of his “The Immortal Memory” essay on Robert Burns, Horace, of the famous Broons Family comic strip, concludes, “Please be upstanding and drink a toast to the immortal memory of Scotland’s bard Robert Burns.” That was what our Burns Night Supper in June was all about: being upstanding. The food that night set me on my way.
Cranachan, or Cream Crowdie Serves 6-8
Alan Davidson, in the Penguin Companion to Food writes that this dessert as we know it today--layers of cream crowdie or whipped cream flavored with heather honey and whiskey, toasted oats, and fresh raspberries-- became prominent in the latter part of the 20th century. Originally, it was a harvest festival dessert made of oatmeal gruel which was known as crowdie. Porridge, in other words, resembled the curdling associated with cream crowdie.
8-9 Tablespoons of pinhead oats, toasted to light brown in the oven and cooled ½ pint heavy whipping cream 14 ounces cream crowdie or mascarpone or fromage blanc 8 Tablespoons of best-quality local honey, or heather honey if obtainable (see Notes) 5 Tablespoons Scotch whiskey 1 pound fresh raspberries, rinsed and dried
Using a standing mixer with a balloon whisk, beat until slightly thickened the heavy whipping cream. When soft peaks form, add the softened mascarpone or fromage blanc, beating at low speed until combined. Add in the honey, oats, and whiskey and beat again. Taste it to check if more honey or whiskey should be added, to your taste.
Layer the cream-oatmeal mixture in a trifle dish or individual parfait glasses with the raspberries, ending with the raspberries neatly arranged on the top. Chill thoroughly.
Notes: Avoid ultra-pasteurized cream or it will not whip properly. You might wish to start with only 6 tablespoons of honey and adjust upwards to taste. Frozen raspberries will not work in this dish; they must be fresh. Cranachen is a classic Burns Night Supper dessert and also traditional at any celebratory occasion throughout much of Scotland.