January 25th is the anniversary of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ birth. And more than two hundred years later, people around the world still celebrate with traditional food and verse. Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio attended a Burns dinner in Chittenden, Vermont and has our story.
CURWOOD: People around the world raised glasses of Scotch whiskey, recited poetry and ate haggis recently – all to honor Scottish poet Robert Burns. The author of such works as “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” was born on January 25th, back in 1759, and his popularity endures. Historians say that’s because unlike his contemporaries, who wrote in more formal prose, Burns wrote like he spoke – in the Scottish dialect of the time. This made his poetry accessible to rich and poor alike.
Vermont Public Radio’s Nina Keck reports on a small group of Vermonters who like to think their annual Burns dinner is not too different than parties the poet himself might have attended over two hundred years ago.
[BAGPIPE MUSIC AND CLAPPING]
KECK: Jim McCrea and Lin Reuther both raise sheep in central Vermont, and both share a love of Scotland. So it kind of fit when the two friends decided years ago to try to make haggis and celebrate Robert Burns with a small dinner party.
McCREA: The night’s a special night and it developed over oh, I don’t know, over ten years. And I think it’s because we all encouraged each other to do the things we love to do. Lin loves to cook and loves to be the host. I love the poetry. I think Robbie Burns would enjoy it.
KECK: One of the highlights of the annual dinner is Lin Reuther’s haggis, a traditional Scottish dish that’s both beloved and reviled by natives.
REUTHER: The first year, of course, I didn’t have any idea on how to cook it. So I went to the Rutland library and they had two ancient books of Scots recipes – and so this is like from the 1800s – and the first time I read it, I thought, the pluck? What’s that? The lights? What’s that? And I actually had to find a Scottish woman who could tell me what these ingredients were in the haggis.
KECK: The pluck turned out to be a sheep’s heart, lungs and kidneys combined. The lights are the animals’ lungs. Reuther says you boil and chop up the animal parts, throw in some spices, several handfuls of toasted oats, stuff it all in a cleaned out sheep’s stomach, and boil it for three hours.
REUTHER: I have to say, sometimes as I’m chopping this stuff up I’m thinking, I’m going to eat this? And then it transforms itself inside this stomach. And of course a little bit of scotch doesn’t hurt either to go with it.
KECK: It also helps to have your own sheep.
[BAAAAAS AND CLUCKING; AND BARN GATE CLOSING]
KECK: Back in November at a neighbor’s barn, Lin’s husband Bill slaughtered one of their sheep for the party.
BILL REUTHER: I think it’s become part of the tradition for the Burns supper, that’s the only way we can get the stomachs. We can’t take a sheep to the commercial slaughter house because the FDA won’t let you get the stomach and the heart, and the lungs, so we couldn’t make a traditional haggis if we didn’t slaughter the sheep ourselves.
KECK: The Reuthers think using one of their own animals also adds to the authenticity of the evening. The 15 guests gathered two months later in the couple’s century’s old farmhouse, agree.
BILL REUTHER: Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please? The haggis is about ready to be served and presented, so if you would take your seats.
KECK: It’s not a true Burns supper if the haggis doesn’t receive its due. So with much pomp and ceremony, the guests raise their glasses and salute what the poet himself called the great ruler of the puddin’ race.
A WOMAN: To the haggis! To the haggis! To Robert Burns!
[CLINK CLINK, BAGPIPE MUSIC]
KECK: This is an evening of history and tradition, of poetry and bawdy jokes, of kilts and Scotch whisky. It’s a party that harkens back to a time when people were more connected to the land, the elements and each other. Guests at the Reuthers bring homemade cheeses and bread, homegrown turnips, potatoes and greens, as well as bottles of home-brewed beer to share.
John Peterson, a high school history teacher, revels in the tradition of it all. Resplendent in a formal kilt, he raises his sword and, with a twinkle in his eye, theatrically launches into one of Robert Burns most famous poems, the “Ode to the Haggis.”
PETERSON: Fair firey on you sauncy, as lang’s me arm…
KECK: Didn’t quite catch that? You’re not alone. But if you’re like most people at a Burns dinner who don’t speak antiquated Scots, you sit back, raise your glass at the appropriate moments, and savor the theater of it all.
KECK: Guest John Hartman says the laughter, music and drama are what make this party so special.
HARTMAN: I think one of the reasons we celebrate him around the world is it was very much a part of the culture of Scotland in Burns’ day, the lively exchange of ideas, conversation and the goings on in an active social environment. And he lived in an incredibly social environment where people did entertain each other. And this dinner is really about those traditions.
KECK: With the holidays over and the days cold and short, this Burns dinner is a deep dark winter celebration of life and art - one these guests look forward to every year. For Living on Earth, I’m Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vermont.
[SINGING: Grim revenge has long been taking a nap, but we yet may see him walking. God help us when the royal heads are hunted like a marken. Away whigs away. Away whigs away. Yer just a pack of traitor loons. You’ll do no good at all. Down the law the whigs will fall all the tops will teary and the crow the raven and the rook will fly to the wood around my dearie. Down the law the whigs will fall all the tops will teary and the crow the raven and the rook will fly to the wood around my dearie.
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