An American entrepreneur is daring to go where no American food manufacturer has gone before - mass producing a Scottish culinary specialty known as haggis. The made in the USA haggis comes as thousands of people in the United States and around the world celebrate Burns Night -honoring 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Robert Burns is Scotland's most-beloved poet, known for his bawdy humor and love of jolly living. He may be best remembered, though, for writing Auld Lang Syne, a signature tune of many New Year's celebrations.
Every year, on the poet's birthday, people with, and even without, Scottish ancestry gather to honor him at thousands of Burns Night suppers around the world.
Two essential elements of a proper feast are Scotch whisky and haggis. Haggis is a sausage-like dish of meat mixed with oatmeal, traditionally stuffed into a casing. The meat is ground innards. And the casing is a stomach. And therein, for many people, lies a problem.
Robert Burns, for better or worse, is inseparably linked to haggis. He was a fan and, in his homeland, elevated the delicacy to almost mythical status, immortalizing it as the "chieftain of the pudding race." Haggis lover and newly-established purveyor, Jim Walters, says the "chieftain" had humble beginnings. "Haggis is the old-time poor folks' food that was used with leftover meat of any animal that may have been butchered," he said. "And you also make all of this meat and all of these leftovers stretch as far as you can. So, a lot of cultures add grain to that product to make it stretch. But it's an old tradition, known as the national dish of Scotland."
In the United States, haggis for Burns Night suppers has been hard to come by. It got worse after Mad Cow disease hit Britain. U.S. customs inspectors reportedly stopped the delicacy at the border, even though the Scottish version is usually made with bits of lamb.
This is where Scottish-American Jim Walters saw an opportunity. In June, Mr. Walters opened Caledonian Kitchen, a Texas-based company that makes canned haggis for the U.S. market. The born-and-bred American didn't start out as a devotee of the dish. "Haggis is probably one of those products that has the worst gawdawful reputation of any food product I know that I've ever heard of," said Jim Walters.
But he says he became a convert after trying some during his first trip to Scotland in 1989. "It wasn't at all what we expected," he said. "We actually liked it. And that got us going, saying, 'Hey, you know, a lot of people do like haggis and it's not the awful, terrible, horrible-tasting product that some people think it is.'"
The Texas entrepreneur says he is now on a mission to persuade Americans that haggis is delicious. And he's made some adjustments, using cows instead of sheep, in an effort to better suit American tastes. "We can get mutton here without too much trouble, but the American palate, Americans as a rule, generally don't like the taste of mutton and they do like the taste of beef," continued Jim Walters. "And since beef is a historically-documented livestock in Scotland, I felt better using beef."
In mass-producing his haggis, Mr. Walters says other alterations were necessary to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. "The old traditional recipes used the kidneys, the liver, heart and a lot of the internal organs like that," he said. "And the original Scottish recipe used the lungs. Now, in the United States, we can't use that because the USDA doesn't consider lungs as being fit for human consumption."
To date, Caledonian Kitchen has sold almost all of its first production run of 7,500 cans of lungless haggis. And that's not including the special "presentation" haggis - a bigger version that comes already stuffed in casing. He sold 60 of those this month, mostly to Burns Night party-goers. The next trick will be to expand his clientele, persuading a burger-eating nation to share in the delights of a sack of innards.