Start The Year Off With A Bung: Haggis

If I’m going to persist with cooking this weird stuff, I’m going to need some kind of hookup. A connection, you know? I’m never that guy– the guy who knows someone doing shady deals out the back of the pub and can get whatever you need for a tenner. Like a schmuck I’m going through the legal channels, and do I end up with lamb lungs? Like hell I do.

Every January, I feel a wee twinge in my soul, a yearning for windswept moors and icy lochs; for sipping whiskey by a fireplace and engaging in savage drunken brawls. I find myself at the local French bakery buying tartins by the armful, but the longing remains, increasing daily until we reach January 25. That’s the birthday of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, and the accompanying celebrations of Burns’ Night.

If you’re going to attempt to make haggis in this country, best start by accepting that it’s not going to be “authentic.” Lamb lungs (or “lights” as they’re delicately called) are a central ingredient of the Scottish delicacy, and the US Department of Agriculture has deemed them “unfit for human consumption.” Many people I’ve spoken to feel that Scottish food in general is unfit for human consumption, but why should that stop us. So unless you’ve got the aforementioned slaughterhouse hookup, or a lot of dead sheep lying around the house, the lights are out. But really, the idea of authenticity in a dish like this is a bit silly. Clearly it was made from what was available, so here in the AHAM kitchen, I was happy to get as close as I could.

Burns’ night is an all-day affair– cooking, drinking whiskey, and bellowing of soul-stirring poetry, so it’s a good idea to get cracking early. On the big day I picked up a weighty bag of sheeps “pluck” from my local butcher– it’s basically the insides north of the guts. A big glossy liver, and a dense, fat-streaked heart were easily identified, some other attached parts less so. For the casing I ordered an ox bung from an online sausage store– traditionally it’s cased in sheeps intestine, but cow is easier to get, and as you don’t eat the casing anyway, it hardly matters. 

I slid the liver and heart into a simmering bath and left them to their own devices for a couple of hours. A word of warning: simmering a liver makes the house smell like simmering liver. Personally I find the smell delightful, but if you think your family or housemates might not appreciate it, send them to the pub, or offer them a peg. Once cooked, our lamb bits and their now gelatinous and fragrant bath water needed to cool down. I’m fortunate in that the back half of my apartment is a bona fide icebox, unusable for half the year except for storing large cuts of meat and FBI informants, so I shoved the pot back there and told Nunzio to keep an eye on it.

 A meat grinder might come in handy for this recipe, and I absolutely plan on buying one, but this time I made do with a box grater and a sharp knife. I hacked up all the bits as fine as I could, mixed them with half a pound of suet, some steel-cut (or pinhead) oats, onions, a few herbs, and that lovely livery broth and started stuffing the lot into my bung. Aside from being endlessly fun to say, Ox bung is a marvellous thing. There’s no mistaking what it is: a long, veiny intestinal wall that looks like a giant condom. Stretchy and tough it’s quite easy to work with and surprisingly forgiving– considering that, in a way, what you’re doing to it is unforgivable– and you’re unlikely to puncture it accidentally. Once it was about two thirds full I tied a knot in the end and resisted the urge to flush it down the loo.

At this point I was able to look proudly down on a pair of recognisable haggises, although somewhat more deflated than I’d expected. I eased the flabby little fellows into a simmering pot where they sank to the bottom like sullen school kids refusing to take part in the swimming carnival. But within a minute they’d started to puff up despite themselves, and inside, I could tell they were warming to the situation. I took a sharp skewer and gave them a few good pokes, just breaking the skin, causing a giggle of bubbles to come shooting out as they grudgingly started to enjoy themselves. Before long they joined the party, floating to the top and spinning madly in the bubblesome tumult. From here on I felt comfortable ignoring the pair completely– I poured some whiskey and left them being the most fabulous haggises they could be. After a couple of hours they were done; I fished them out and onto their platter, and it was time to get serious.

There are conventions to be adhered to on Burns’ night. It’s cool with a gang, but if you’re celebrating alone, play all the parts yourself. First, open the best whiskey you can afford and pour a large glass for everyone. Then someone must recite Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” while brandishing a large cutlass. The poem should be read with fire and passion, and no matter how bad your Scottish accent, it must be carried off with conviction and purpose. No giggling. Awed silence is to be observed by the company. Pour a dram over the haggis, and slice the little bugger open with your cutlass, as though it’s the belly of the leader of an enemy clan. Spoon its steaming innards out alongside neeps and tatties (look it up), and get stuck in. Regular whiskey refills are appropriate.

You know how much fat went into this thing. It’s not the healthiest thing you’ve ever eaten. But damn it’s rich and warming and soothing and afterwards as you sit there digesting, close your eyes and you’ll be fireside in an ancient castle, a hunting dog snuffling by your side, the warmth of the fire drifting up your kilt. A band of bagpipers files in blaring a highland hornpipe and you realise the lungs always go to the wrong people. 

Recipes (there’s plenty of room to move here, as sheep plucks come in all different sizes. I sort of combined them all):

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