Scottish Haut Cuisine

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

Address to a Haggis – Robert Burns

My grandfather’s father came from Scotland to the mountain west just over a hundred years ago. My grandfather never stopped being a Scotsman. He was active in the local Highland Games. At my cousin’s wedding, there was a picture of all four of my father & uncles wearing clan kilts. And in his 80s, after decades of never traveling by plane, he decided to go back to the old sod and spent a month or so wandering around Scotland reintroducing himself to various long-severed branches of the family and being welcomed in with open arms.

As with so many cultures, cuisine plays a critical role in the transmission of this culture. Instead of curries or empanadas or stir fries, we had corned beef hash.

My mother is a midwestern girl, raised in California. But it was another century, so when she married my father she took over responsibility for making the corned beef hash. I think fondly on her tendency to forget the garlic salt, which only my grandmother could spot in omission. Often when we got together as a family, dinner would be corned beef hash (with accouterments) and a pie or two from my mother’s hands.

I HATED corned beef hash. It looked disgusting. It tasted disgusting. No sane person would eat it. But it was served to me over and over again in an era where there were no alternative food options and as a person under ten you ate the dinner that was served or you did not eat dinner. And so despite my dislike, I ate the stuff. By the time I was ready to head off to college and leave the familial fold, I liked it quite a lot. It was tasty (if you closed your eyes). And it tasted like family times and traditions.

Sometime in this century, I made friends with a man of Hungarian descent who (logically) hosts a Burns Night. It’s one of my favorite things – poetry, song, deep meaning and good company. And to accompany the beverages available, I often bring a batch of corned beef hash to share.

I was making the meal yesterday (it actually is better on the second day, so I make it on Saturday and freeze it on the porch. Then I carry it frozen to the celebration and heat it up there. I’ve been doing a lot of Blue Apron and Hello Fresh lately, which produces these lovely, colorful meals that are in many ways designed for Instagram. The contrast with Corned Beef hash was… stark. I also realized that 100% of the ingredients fall into two categories: preserved meats & roots.

So with no further ado, here is how to make your very own, highly Instagrammable Corned Beef Hash.

I recommend dusty cans – they taste better

Scottish Corned Beef Hash
From the kitchen of Carolyn Johnstone – long may her memory endure!
Serves ~12 hearty rustics
Prep time: 30 minutes – Cook time: 1 hr minimum (3 is better)

1) Boil 5 lbs russett potatoes, whole, with skins on
2) Chop 1/2 lb bacon (or a whole pound if you’re getting into the spirit)
3) Chop 2 large yellow onions
4) In a large dutch oven on the stove, cook together bacon and onions
5) Open and cube 2 cans of “corned beef”. Make sure not to break the key or your life will be full of pain.
6) Once bacon is rendered and onions are soft, add corned beef.
7) Add 1 teaspoon garlic salt (optional if you’re my mom)
8) Once potatoes are cooked through, drain and let sit for a few minutes. Then by hand peel off the skins and cube the potatoes into the dutch oven.
9) Start by adding two cups of water (see note before)

The best way to cook this is to leave it simmering on your stove over the course of several hours. If you do this, you’ll need to add more water in as it gets thick, since this often leads to the dish getting burned. If you do burn it, just stir above the burned line and you’ll be fine.

Serve with:
Large curd cottage cheese
White Italian bread slices

What am I, chopped meat?
Potato skin residue
At the beginning of simmer

Poetry and Song

My toast to Bobbie Burns
My toast to Bobbie Burns

One of my favorite nights of the year is Burns Night, hosted by my dear friends Dave and Maggie.* The hallmarks of Burns Night, in addition to the Haggis and Scotch, are poetry and song. On the best of the nights, we’ve taken turns – breathless – in the living room sharing words and music. We usually begin with actual songs and poems written by Robbie Burns. (“My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” often gets sung more than once.) We recite his poetry. (Cally’s rendition of “Ode to a Haggis” is breathtaking.) Dave reads “Address to the Deil”.

Somewhere around an hour in, one of us gives the Toast to Robbie Burns. I was on duty a few years ago and actually read a biography of the Bard of Scotland. Since then, I’ve been on duty in case there’s some failure of speaker to arrive.

Then we start slipping into the vaguely Celtic. Adam does his priceless rendition of “Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man”. Maggie’s father lifts a mournful voice for “Kathleen Mavourneen”. There’s Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson – by heart or from the books that lay scattered at our feet.

We slide fully into just poetry, and just song. Nick recites Kite. We belt out “Barrett’s Privateers”. Cori’s liquid voice slides through “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. The night ends swaying, holding hands, singing “Auld Lange Syne” (all verses) while looking into the eyes and hearts of these people to whom we have grown suddenly, unaccountably close through these greatest magic-makers: poetry and song. We have all fallen in love with each other in the silence after the singing. I leave with a joyful heart, and can’t wait for the next year.

But I’ve never done it at one of my parties, for all my love and passion for it. Why not? I’ve wondered often.

During Christmas and Easter, I often stand at the front of the church as I play my trumpet. It’s a day a lot of visitors come, of course, and I can watch them as they worship with us. There’s a particular kind of visitor I haven’t quite come to understand yet. The stand with the congregation during the hymns. They often even hold the hymnal in their hands. But they remain stoically silent – jaws clenched and unmoving as the rest of us sing. I wonder: are they there against their wills? Do they think they “can’t sing”? (Do they think we can?!) Do they think that church is something you watch, instead of something you do?

Last year I toasted decked in my tam
Last year I toasted decked in my tam – thanks to Joe for the picture!

That is – I think – the heart of it. We have become a world of watchers. We don’t sound good enough. We aren’t skilled enough. We were told when we were little that we can’t carry a tune. Please, for heaven’s sake be quiet. We all hear the world’s best musicians and artists (remixed, studio supported) every day. How can our voice compete? It can’t. And so we shut up. And our neighbor/friend/partner/kid is also not nearly as good as what’s on the radio, so we make fun of them. We have an entire tv genre built around making fun of people for thinking they can sing. In truth, the moment Adam and I first met was over our shared defiance of this cultural norm. He was walking down the hall of our dorm singing “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”. Instead of giving him the “you’re weird” look, I picked up the chorus. (Prescient, eh?)

I love to sing, even though my voice is decidedly mediocre. I love to hear my friends sing – even if they’ll never be Brandy Clark** I love to look in their sincere and vulnerable faces as they recite a poem they learned by heart when they were fourteen. I love Nick’s sock puppet hand, Callie’s slicing of the Haggis, Dave’s delightful “deil” and Cori’s key change on “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. On those Sundays when I couldn’t find faith in my heart, I still came to church to sing the old old songs with my friends until faith could find its way back.

Where to go from here? I wish I could call on you all to sing – in public, with your friends. But even I’m too chicken (too wise? too often shot down? too defeated?) to call my friends to song. Perhaps instead I can remind you that the joy is not in the passive listening, it is in the listening to a friend. There is something about singing together which is powerful and precious. Sing to each other, my beloved companions. Quote poems. Sing to me. And together we can fill the world with a joyful noise.

Thane (top row) singing at his school’s winter concert

* New people at Burns Night sometimes ask how I know Dave or Maggie. My favorite reply is that I married him/her. It’s true. I did.
** I don’t remember ever hearing Brandy play guitar or sing in high school. I can’t remember if she was even in choir, and I’m pretty sure she never got a solo in our high school concerts.