Haggis is the souse of Scotland, a meaty mystery traditionally made of ground sheep organs, oats and spices, boiled together in a sheep's stomach. It's a peasant dish with hundreds of years of history (both pleasant and unpleasant) and a pungent smell that lingers almost as long. "You smell it once, you can smell it years later," says John Shields, a native of Scotland now living in Denver. "It takes you right back to your childhood: 'My God, that's haggis.'"
This time of year, though, Scottish transplants (and Statesiders with a little tartan in their veins) crave the dish, aroma and all. Haggis serves as the edible centerpiece for the Burns Night celebrations held worldwide in honor of Scotland's greatest poet, Robert Burns, who was born on January 25, 1759. Celebrants mark the date with large helpings of haggis, Scotch, bagpipe music and dramatic readings of Burns's poetic tribute, "Address to a Haggis."
Since few Colorado cooks have firsthand experience making the poem's honored dish, they invariably turn to Shields. For twelve years, he's been a volunteer haggis maker for various Burns honorers and Scotch-guarding groups, outfits that need haggis like a Thanksgiving Day American needs turkey. Call it a labor of loathe. "It's not something I'll eat every day, or even more than twice a year," Shields says. "But I know what it is; I know what I'm aiming at and when I'm not there."
Not about a Restaurant
For the third year in a row, Shields will be making the treat for a Burns Night supper in Durango. "I'm not sure if 'treat' is the right word for it," jokes Greg Hanshaw, a representative of the Durango group. Before they found Shields, he says, their culinary guest of honor on Burns Night was an "almost edible" creation made by club members attempting to clone the dish. Now they eat the haggis with relish.
"He has a very rare talent," Hanshaw says of Shields. "He's the only haggis maker for hire in the state that I know of, the only person I know willing and capable of doing this for us." Shields will make the group's haggis a few days ahead of time and then ship it overnight to Hanshaw; in exchange for his efforts, he'll accept money to cover the cost of the ingredients and a small donation for his time.
Shields first got the call to make his native poor-boy fare for the St. Andrew Society, a local group that needed it for the annual Colorado Scottish Festival held each August in Highlands Ranch. Shields's easy-to-stomach concoction was a smash, and he became the group's go-to guy for haggis help.
Shields got his first taste of haggis as a student. "It's cheap and nasty and fairly inexpensive," he says, explaining the dish's popularity with school cafeterias. Across Scotland and most of the United Kingdom, haggis is ubiquitous. In its cheaper form, it's the equivalent of American macaroni and cheese, a staple for blue-collar families and college students. In its elevated version, the dish is found in high-end restaurants, where it's served with gourmet sauces and the traditional sides of "neaps and tatties" (mashed turnips and potatoes).
Still, for many Americans, haggis has a Fear Factor reputation. Under the influence of a kilt and what Shields calls "a well-aged, twelve-year-old Scottish gravy," Burns Night attendees often become food adventurers: "You always get a few William Wallace Braveheart wannabes who say, 'Give me as big a helping as you can. I always eat haggis.'"
But haggis doesn't deserve its offal reputation, Shields insists. "When is the last time you ate a hot dog or a bratwurst?" he asks. "What was in that hot dog?"
For Colorado cooks, just finding what you put in haggis is a challenge. "When I first started looking for ingredients, I couldn't find any of them," recalls Justin McKinney, executive chef at Arvada's Cheshire Cat brewpub, which has hosted a Burns Night for the past three years. "Sheep's stomach: Where am I going to find that?"
Shields get his lamb meat and sheep organs from Sir Loin, an Aurora butcher shop with a large Middle Eastern, lamb-eating clientele. Since sheep stomachs are difficult to come by, he fakes it by sewing together pieces of cow stomachs from his local King Soopers. "It looks like a football," he says. He blends the ground-up sheep livers, kidneys, hearts and meat with onions, rosemary, thyme and steel-cut oats, which give the dish a grainy texture that rolled oats can't deliver.
"A lot can go wrong with haggis," Shields notes. "It can end up something like prison food if you're not careful." He also makes a vegetarian version on request.
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McKinney makes his haggis less frightful by creating it from ground beef, chicken livers and toasted almonds, with a small dose of lamb "to give it that gamey flavor," he says. Instead of re-creating a sheep's stomach, he covers his version in Saran Wrap and boils it. "We've had regulars come in from England, and they've said this was better than they could get out there."
It's a seasonal compliment. "I try to do this only once a year, McKinney admits. "I want to keep the customers in here, and when I start cooking haggis, it generally runs them out." (For information on the Cheshire Cat's Burns Night gala, call 303-431-9000; to learn about the St. Andrew Society's February 1 celebration, call 303-238-6524.)
At the Shields house, no one runs when Dad puts out the haggis. He serves the dish about once a year, he says, and the kids never complain. "They're into the haggis thing now and going to the Burns supper," he says. "Partly because of all the young men in the skirts."
But making haggis is its own reward. "I just enjoy the cooking and the challenge of it," Shields concludes. "I suppose I do it because nobody else that I know of does."