Burns Night Supper

Scottish poet Robert Burns
Robert Burns

We hosted our first Burns Night Supper on Saturday night, celebrating the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). In doing so we joined a tradition that began over two centuries ago, and which has spread from Scotland throughout the world. Leslie and I served a five-course meal to eleven people (including ourselves), and a good time was had by all.

John McDade, a real Scot and the owner of Wee Bit o’ Scotland here in Boise, and the pipe major of the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, asked us to host it this year because his “wee pal Mairi” couldn’t do her annual supper for some reason. With John’s input and Leslie’s research we got it together.

The event progresses along a well-established program, interspersing words and music with the food and drink (click on the image of the program below).

Burns Night program, 2010
Burns Night program, 2010

After Leslie and I piped in the haggis, my good friend and bonafide ham Josh White gave the “Address to the Haggis” in a rich yet contested Scottish brogue, garnering plenty of belly laughs from the company.

John had provided the haggis – canned, but, alas,  from Scotland – which was delicious but did not have the same effect as a real one would have; there is a moment in the address in which the speaker bisects the piping hot haggis with a butcher knife, narrating the action with a delighted “warm, reekin, rich” as the steam and acrid aroma attacks the guests. In our case, we molded the contents of four cans of haggis into a dome, which was the best we could do. With more time and resources next year, I hope we can provide or make a real one. I wanted to import one from Scotland, but apparently the FDA won’t allow it because of the risk of Mad Cow or Hoof In Mouth or some such thing. I made haggis years ago from a Frugal Gourmet recipe, but the dogs wouldn’t even touch it. Perhaps it was a bit too frugal, or maybe not frugal enough. UPDATE: This just in –the US is apparently lifting the ban on imported haggis!

Each step of the program and each dish we ate was noteworthy. As I looked at the photos I took during the evening, one of the things that impressed me the most was that nearly everyone in every photo was smiling.

The thing that impressed me more than anything, though, was my wife’s “Response to the Toast to the Lassies.” To put it mildly, Leslie is not comfortable with public speaking, and she prefers never to be the center of attention. A look through her closet, dominated by black, brown, and gray clothes, will give you a sense of her desire to maintain a peripheral presence in a group situation. Leading up to the evening Leslie had not said  much about what she planned to do for her response to my “Toast.”

I knew she would work something out but also knew she was nervous about it. In fact, I was surprised she consented to do it in the first place, but was pleased she did. After my silly toast, in which I attempted to be faithful to the concept of Burns’ appreciation of women, Leslie took the podium.

She began by saying that she had made a few notes, and then held up several pieces of yellow and white paper covered on both sides with tiny handwriting, eliciting a big group laugh.

It would have taken an hour just to read the notes. Unlike me, she has a gift for understatement. She then framed her “Response” with comments about my father being a poet and how she knew very little about poetry and found it ironic to be talking about all this, but expressed her appreciation for the chance to learn more  about poetry in general and Burns in particular. She continued by telling us more about Burns and the women in his short life but productive life. Leslie noted that Burns had numerous children with numerous women, but balanced that aspect with Burns’ recognition of women as more than breeders and sex objects. She told us about his “The Rights of Woman” address, written in response to Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” and she read an excerpt from it. Leslie’s “Response” was the highlight of the night for me in many ways, but mostly in terms of the poise, confidence, and graceful intelligence with which she delivered it.

The formal event ends with the entire company singing Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne, which many of us had never done before. It is not a particularly difficult (or short) song, but it was an excellent way to conclude. I have always thought that singing is the most intimate of personal expressions in that it is the least mediated method of utterance. There is no instrument with keys to press, or canvas with which to hold paint, or paper on which to put words. To sing is to bare your voice to the world, and to do it in a group is to experience an exponential, synergistic form of energy. Maybe it’s ecstasy. In any case, it was a good evening and I am thankful we got to participate.

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