Haggis, the oft-joked about, seldom eaten national dish of Scotland, made a rare Denver appearance on Saturday night at the 16th annual Burns Night dinner put on by the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Capitol Hill to honor the birthday of Scottish poet, gentleman farmer and epicurean Robert Burns. The football-shaped pudding that Burns immortalized in verse has come to represent everything dreary, bland and antiquated about the rainy country, but the Denver Society of the Knights of Saint Andrew elevated the humble supper with a celebration that was equal parts solemn and festive.
This was my first encounter with haggis, so I joined the other guests as we girded ourselves for the main course with a pre-dinner distilled spirits tasting highlighted by Shackleton's Whisky, a modern recreation of a bottled Scotch recently discovered at the site one of the explorer's abandoned Antarctic outposts. A dose of liquid courage is recommended when faced with haggis, which combines a sheep's heart, liver and lungs (collectively known as the pluck) in a gruel of oats, herbs and stock — all stuffed into the beast's stomach and slow-cooked to the consistency of drywaller's spackle. Although the lungs aren't used in the U.S. (they're not approved for human consumption by the USDA), the rest of the finished product is an offal affair.
Bagpipers from the El Jebel Pipe Band warmed up the audience with a few patriotic and traditional tunes before an honor guard paraded the steaming haggis around the perimeter of the dining hall, pipes wailing and swords drawn to fend off would-be plunderers. A kilted member of the order placed the dish on its table of honor and another brother faced the pale, quivering mass, ready to recite the famous poem, "Address to a Haggis," penned by Burns in 1786.
"Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o' the pudding-race!" he began, intoning the words in a respectable Scottish burr. At the proper moment of the address, he brandished an antique chef's knife and sliced into the haggis, triumphantly reciting the words:
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
The haggis sighed and slumped, the meaty contents spilling from its mortal wound. And then dinner was served, with a separate squadron of stuffed sheep's innards in the galley used to fill the guest's plates, alongside ale-braised pot roast, mashed potatoes and roasted root vegetables. In truth, the flavor of the haggis — rich, salty and well-herbed, like a savory bowl of oatmeal — was milder than its formidable appearance.
The haggis, despite its intimidating reputation, was little more than a mild side on a hearty plateful of rustic fare. Far worse in name, a bowl of cock-a-leekie soup, capped with a golden layer of puff pastry, also turned out to be simple farmhouse food, in this case a chicken and vegetable soup with leeks as the main ingredient.
Most of the other diners were members of the lodge and their families, but our table of kiltless misfits — attracted by the mystique of the Scottish dish, and by the reputation of Burns as a lover of the written word — enjoyed the evening as a rare glimpse into Scottish traditions and cuisine. As guests were treated to dessert and melancholy tunes sung by a Scottish lass, we slipped out into the night before the first tears fell from the cheeks of the nostalgic brotherhood of Denver Scots.
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