It’s been a while since I wrote one of my guaranteed-to-please “Trivia about Some Long-Dead Guy” columns. Shoot, I haven’t foisted anything like that on you since. . .oh yeah, a couple weeks ago, in that Bourke Hickenlooper column.
Well, no matter, this storyline is irresistible: The worldwide observances, on Jan. 25, of Burns Suppers. Yeah yeah, “Burns Suppers” is how my family describes my cooking, har-de-har-har, but that’s not what I’m talking ‘bout. I’m talkin ‘bout elaborately staged dinners honoring the life and works of the immortal Scottish poet Robert Burns, who was born Jan. 25, 1759.
You might be saying, as my wife and kids did, “Robert Burns? Who dat?” But if you’ve ever stayed up until 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, then I’ll bet your bottom dollar that you know at least one of his works: Yep, the theme song for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rocking Eve (written when Burns and Clark were high school classmates).
Oh, and he also wrote another fairly popular holiday ditty, called “Auld Lang Syne.”
Burns is fervently remembered to this day for many other impossible-to-pronounce lyrics and poems produced during a life that was short and, shall we say, colorful: A big-time literary star at a young age; scads of kids with various women; a fondness for inebriating substances. All in all, an ideal candidate for an intervention by Dr. Phil.
Burns fanatics, and there are huge numbers of them, will strenuously protest that I mock Burns’ memory with this paltry explanation of his legacy. That’s certainly not my intent. My intent is to mock the Burns Suppers held by Burns fanatics.
Burns Suppers are very traditional affairs, whether they’re held in Scotland, Japan, or the Kremlin (where the annual Burns fete is nationally televised. Its ratings have soared in recent years with the addition of a Burns poetry-reading contest judged by Simon Cowell.)
The main goal of a Burns Supper is to entertain, which is a breeze, considering its required elements: Scotch whisky; haggis, a dish made from sheep parts that even desperately starving wild carnivores won’t touch; Maalox; and lots more Scotch whisky.
Every Burns Supper follows a precise format. First, everyone stands as the haggis is brought in, accompanied by a bagpiper. If the guests have been keeping the host from his whisky, he punishes them by having the bagpiper play.
Next, the guest with the most whisky in him recites Burns’ famous poem, “Address to a Haggis.” (Burns made serious money writing stuff like this, so stop mocking me for hoping that my “Trivia about Dead Guys” columns will eventually do the same for me.)
“Address to a Haggis” is a challenging piece, requiring six or seven draughts of whisky to get through, thanks to verses like this:
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
At the poem’s end, a toast is drunk to the meal, which everyone strenuously pretends to enjoy. The haggis must be accompanied by tatties and mashed neeps, Scottish side dishes which everyone moves around their plates to make it look like they ate some. Dessert may be cranachan or Tipsy Laird, traditional treats made from stuff that was too gross to put in the haggis. All washed down with liberal tots of you know what.
Following the meal, numerous mandatory speeches and toasts are made:
“The Loyal Toast”;
“The Immortal Memory Toast”;
“The Appreciation Toast”;
A between-toasts drink;
“Toast to the Lasses,” made by a gentleman to the ladies;
“Toast to the Laddies,” made by a lady. Typically the speakers making this toast and the previous one will collaborate, meaning they hold each other up;
“Toast to All the Toasters”;
And finally, “Other Toasts and Speeches.”
After all this, Burns’ poems and songs are performed. Men are fond of cooing “Ae Fond Kiss” to a woman they didn’t bring to the party, while “Parcel O’ Rogues” is popular with women whose men are singing to other women.
A Burns Supper is delightfully open-ended. It lasts as long as the guests wish, fuggedaboud what the host wishes. However, experienced Supper-goers know well NOT to leave last. That person has to take home all the leftover haggis.