When I was a little kid, my godparents would have us over for Robbie Burns dinner every January. At four and five years old, I never understood the fuss. It seemed to be an occasion upon which to eat disgusting food.
The main course included a dry, strong and — to my sensitive young tastebuds — hideous meat that tasted like the evil liver we ate at home on Wednesday nights. Only this was even worse, as it was all crumbly and dry, reportedly cooked inside a sheep’s stomach with nary a drop of ketchup. Paired with Brussels sprouts and lumpy mashed potatoes, this was not a small child’s dream dinner. And ever the fastidious and frugal Scot, Uncle Charlie had no bothersome hound under the table to which I could offer a few indelicate morsels.
How could this be a special occasion?
With this non-celebratory image burned into my memory, I should be forgiven my reluctance upon being invited to attend a Robbie Burns Dinner. I was promised a perfect evening complete with haggis, bagpipes and possibly other savoury Scottish items, such as mashed neeps.
Aye, the culture shock! Highland dancing, pipers, drummers, Scotch tasting, and, yes, haggis. Most surprising to me was the intensity of the other 499 guests. They were really into this Scottish stuff. They knew the tartans (yes I saw many hairy legs, some belonging to men), the clans, the songs and the lore. Robbie Burns was quoted, jokes were told and many glasses raised in toast. For a wee Canadian lass, I felt a bit like a kid at an 18th century wedding. A true fish out of water. Nessy out of her Loch, as it were.
Then I had a startling realization. We Canadians love to travel all over the world to immerse ourselves in culture and dine on the local fare. We eat pasta in Tuscany, bread and cheese in Provence, and pastries in Munich. To burn off the excess calories, we tromp about comparing cathedrals and paintings, learn the local songs and seek that total cultural experience.
Yet here we are, in our own country, with so many chances to dive into our neighbours’ proud heritage. Friday night suppers at the Ukrainian Hall, Greek Festivals each summer and Chinese New Year in winter. Bollywood refers to the movie industry in Mumbai, but now it includes opportunities for plump Canadians to squirm their way through dance lessons at urban rec centres. We are Canadians, for heaven’s sake! Canada is all about diversity, right? And I do go to the Highland Games every summer.
Fine, twist my arm. There I was at Robbie Burns night. I watched a lot of proud people wearing their clan tartans and talking about the old country. I witnessed two grannies dabbing their eyes while three young fellows leapt about during the sword dance. And I was mesmerized by the gold medal piper who, with fleet of finger and puff of cheeks, proved himself to be the “Jimmy Page of the pipes,” as my friend referred to him.
So yes, I was a Scot for a day. I toured the hearts of 499 Scots and wannabe Scots. I ate the meat, raised my glass to the bard and sang Auld Lang Syne. I even ate the haggis. But please, do me one favour? If you run into old Charlie Smith or his long suffering bride Mary, don’t tell them my wicked secret — I actually liked the darn stuff.
“Kilt & Sporran”. Wikicommons.