If there is one annual ritual by which a wandering Scot can instantly reaffirm his or her identity, it is by spending the evening of January 25 drinking copious amounts of whisky, and feasting on haggis, mashed potatoes and turnips, all the while reciting the poetry of Scotland's national treasure, Robbie Burns. The more energetic might even throw in some Highland dancing.
I may live in Brazil, where Burns is little known, but the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth could not pass uncelebrated. My Brazilian friends, after years of doubting my glowing stories of Scottish food and Scottish poetry, were game to provide a crowd for an early Burns Night.
"I looked up Burns and haggis on Wikipedia but it's difficult to understand the Scottish language and so I was keen to know more," said Flavia Lins e Silva.
The first, and typically the toughest, challenge in staging a Burns Night in the tropics, is acquiring a haggis that singular Scottish culinary delight comprising the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep mixed with onion, oats and spices, and cooked in the sheep's stomach. Many countries, including the United States, prohibit its import on hygienic grounds.
"Urgh," said one Brazilian friend when I tried explaining that haggis is to Scotland as caviar is to Russia. "Yuk," said another. Many non-Scots only need hear the ingredients to abandon any thoughts of even a taste.
But I was undeterred. I know that looks (and descriptions) can be deceiving, and I know that Brazilians are not afraid to eat things other people might consider disgusting. In the northeast of the country they eat buchada, a not dissimilar concoction made from goat's intestines. And Brazil's national dish, feijoada, is a black bean stew bobbing with pigs trotters, snouts and ears. So, with sheeps' innards not exactly standard fare in the butcheries of Brazil, I packed two haggis in my luggage when returning from a Christmas vacation in Scotland, and began planning the big event.
The expatriate Burns Nights I've attended in other countries were well-organized and catered affairs, but my two haggis would feed only ten if that many could be found to taste it. Our numbers were low, but we remained sticklers for tradition, which required that I wear my kilt, despite a nighttime temperature over 90 degrees. And, as is tradition on any Burns Night, there was plenty of whisky and plenty of speeches.
The whisky connection needed no explaining, but the speeches baffled my Brazilian friends and not only because they were read in Scots, the native language of Scotland when Robert Burns wrote during the second half of the 18th century.
Burns penned hundreds of poems in his 37 years, and any of them can be read at a Burns Night. Only one, however, is obligatory, his classic To a Haggis, a tribute to our national dish. As the haggis is brought into the room, a guest reads the poem, taking care to stab the haggis at the appropriate moment and watch it gush out, in Burns words "warm, steaming, rich."
The haggis is then served, in this case to surprising acclaim. My Brazilian guests compared the texture to terrine and Arab kibbeh, and the taste to pate. Even our Italian host, a man to whom food is almost a religion, was complimentary. "I made a pasta as a backup because I thought no one would eat the haggis," confessed Rocco Cotroneo. "But I needn't have worried. The Scottish fooled us with their disgusting descriptions, but it was delicious."
A few drams later, the poetry continued. Big Burns Nights usually have several speeches, including a "Toast to the Ladies" from a male host, and a response from a female guest. "To the Guests" is a welcome message, and "From the Guests" is a reply from an outsider. All are supposed to use Burns' poetry to entertain, and to popularize his work among the uninitiated. (I read Cock Up Your Beaver, one of the poet's most beloved works among his contemporary acolytes.)
The Brazilians in the room knew little about the man and were shocked to know that it was Burns who wrote Auld Lang Syne, the global hymn of friendship and farewell. Still, it's not hard to identify with a man whose most celebrated traits were his humanity and his romance. Burns was first and foremost a man of the people, and much of his poetry is about life's cruel injustices. One of his most famous works is To a Mouse, written after seeing a field mouse almost cut down by a farmer's plough.
He was also a legendary womanizer who wrote frequently and passionately about his expansive affections, penning some of the most memorable words of love ever written. No less a lyricist than Bob Dylan last year said the words that most influenced him came in Burns' poem, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.
That nugget was shared at our Burns Night by Jimmy Dunnet, a true Highlander, who read the "Immortal Memory," the keynote speech of any Burns Night. Dunnet told of Burns' upbringing in rural Scotland and his short, productive life. "He was a socialist, a patriot and a romantic," Dunnet told us, before raising a toast in Burns honor.
To my surprise, the Brazilians got it, vindicating those who believe that Burns was a true internationalist, a man whose words transcend borders. They scarfed down all the haggis and lapped up the poetry. Some even spoke of hosting their own Burns Night next year.
"We can adapt it for the Brazilian summer, with tabbouleh instead of haggis" said Fabiana Egrejas. "And of course we'll have cachaca instead of whisky."