The Haggis Wars: Could A Scottish Invasion Signal The End of American Haggis?
As throngs of red-faced, whiskey-downing clansmen and wannabe lairds across the U.S. chomped down on their haggis yesterday amidst the convivial ambience of Burn’s Night, one authentic Scottish ingredient was surely missing. Sheep’s lungs.
In a painful affront to their ancestry, since 1989 – after Britain’s BSE crisis – Americans of Scottish decent have been woefully denied haggis from the homeland whilst they celebrate the great bard’s birthday with song, dance, booze and offal. Following the outbreak more than 20 years ago the USDA banned Scottish sheep in all its incarnations from its menu. And since the “great chieftain o’ the pudding race” – Burn’s words, not mine –contains sheep’s lungs, liver and heart amongst a smattering of spices, onions and oats all encased in a neat sack made from the lining of a sheep’s stomach, no doubt it was amongst the first delicacies to be struck off the import list.
But aficionados of all things Scottish may finally be free to perform the solemn ceremonial carrying in of the haggis, preceded by a recitation of Burn’s famous Ode to a Haggis and the screech of the bagpipes with the real deal. The USDA has recently announced plans to relax legislation on imported meats that up till now has prevented the sale of Scottish haggis in the U.S. reports the U.K. Independent newspaper.
In recent years Americans have had to party with the spirits of their forefathers whilst supping on locally manufactured haggis. “Local” may be the buzzword for the noughties, but when it comes to this offal delicacy, diehard haggis fans say Americans are missing out. Much of the local haggis comes out of a can – Robbie Burns would surely turn in his grave- and if you do find it in a casing, more often than not it will be artificial and not a genuine sheep’s stomach lining as the original recipe calls for. But it gets worse. Even with BSE -free American sheep filling out this pungent pudding, the USDA strictly forbids the use of sheep’s lungs in home grown approximations. In 1971 the agency banned the use of lungs in food when researchers found them to be contaminated with lesions, bacteria and stomach contents. However, changes are afoot thanks to the World Organization for Animal Health. What is now deemed an adulterated food item could likely soon be welcomed into our diets and into our haggis.
Yesterday, the US Department of Agriculture said new regulations were being drafted in line with international standards. A spokeswoman told The Sunday Times the review was being carried out in line of a ruling from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) that sheep lung – a core ingredient of the Burns Night dish which will be consumed tonight in homes across the UK – is safe. She said: “By closely aligning our import rules with the OIE, we will allow the importation of certain ruminant products that do not contain tissues associated with BSE infectivity or ruminants raised under conditions where they were not fed prohibited materials associated with spreading BSE.”
So what does this mean for American manufacturers of the “warm-reekin’ rich” (Burn’s again…) haggis? Will they be laying down their canning accoutrements, meat mincers and oat dispensers to make way for the superior Scottish breed? Or will they be putting up a fight ol’ Robbie would be proud of. To answer these questions, I spoke to a couple of haggis producers.
Jim Walters, an all-round Scot, who owns The Caledonian Kitchen, makers of fine Celtic fare, and signs off his emails “Laird O ‘ Tha Haggis,” told me he couldn’t be more excited at the prospect of having to contend with Scottish rivals. Walters, whose haggis are made in Ohio (the canned variety) and Florida (frozen in artificial fibrous skins) spoke to me from his home near Dallas, Texas. ”I love competition, I absolutely thrive on it,” he said over the phone.
However, one thing that Walter isn’t too happy about is that the Scots don’t want to play fair. U.S. beef products are banned in the EU and Walters’ haggis are made using Highland cattle, sirloin beef and beef livers. Even his lamb version has beef livers, making them a no-no for his Celtic cousins. Still, he doesn’t think he’ll lose out too much. He knows the competition will be stiff but he has great confidence in his recipe which he has refined over the last 20 years. And it appears that the Scots don’t think it’s half bad either. When Walters entered an early prototype of his sirloin beef haggis to a competition at the venerable St Andrews, he was the only Yankee pitted against nine other local haggis makers. Despite the fact his early incarnation was not nearly as good as the product he sells today, he walked away in fifth place.
This year Walters’ sales are already 20% up on last year and with last minute orders still coming in for Burn’s week, “the dust hasn’t settled yet,” he said. Not only is he optimistic for what the future holds in the U.S., but he’s already planning world domination (provided those nasty Europeans let up, of course). “I can’t wait to sell my haggis to the Scots,” he said,” I love free trade.”
Ron Thurston who runs McKeans North America, which produces haggis from the unlikely city of Bangor, Maine, is similarly worry-free about the prospect of Scottish haggis killing his business. But for a different reason from Walters. “I think its an urban myth that the USDA is going to change its rulings to permit the importation of Scottish haggis,” said Thurston. Thurston who makes haggis with a more traditional slant, combining lamb meat with lambs heart, kidney and liver and a secret blend of spices and oats that are shipped directly from Scotland, said the subject comes up every year and nothing changes. In fact, he was interviewed this time last year on the BBC on very same subject. But this isn’t where his theory ends. Thurston suspects that an Edinburgh based haggis supplier, jealous of McKean’s success in the U.S., is responsible for this “rumor”.
Thurston, whose Scotland based business partner is a certain William Gordon Wallace (seriously), started the US company six years ago after he called up Wallace’s Glasgow enterprise to order haggis and put the phone down not with a delivery of haggis on its way over but with an offer to extend the business to the U.S.
Thurston is adamant that the haggis that is made on this side of the Atlantic with Wallace’s only slightly tweaked recipe tastes just as good the stuff McKeans concocts in Glasgow. The lack of lung is indiscernible. As for the fact that his haggis is stuffed into an artificial casing as opposed to a genuine sheep’s stomach, “well, I don’t think that makes any difference,” Thurston said. To some, perhaps. I wonder if William Wallace would agree?