I know, with some certainty, that I am part Italian, German, and Irish. With less certainty I could say there might be some Scottish mixed in there as well. Two nights ago at the British Embassy in Baghdad, everybody celebrated their Scottish heritage, whether it’s real or not. In true IZ fashion, Brits, Scots, Irishmen, Danes, Aussies, and, of course, Americans gathered to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, with a Burns Supper.
I honestly did not know what to expect from the event. All I knew was that I had to dress up and I would probably get a better meal than usual. When the night started out with a standing salute to a platter of boiled sheep’s organs, I knew it would be a interesting experience.
Yes, haggis was not only on the menu, it was the featured dish and a significant piece of the traditional celebration. Sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs mashed up with oatmeal and onions, stuffed into a stomach, and boiled. It was carried in on a giant platter, followed by a man in full-Scottish garb (I’ve never seen such a gathering of men in skirts!) playing the bagpipes. They snaked through the room and around each table while everybody clapped, before arriving at the front of the room. One distinguished (kilted) guest gave a grizzly and animated rendition of Burns’ “Address to a haggis” while slashing the grayish mound open with a knife:
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,
As the tradition calls for numerous toasts (to the haggis, to Burns himself, to the lassies, to the lads), scotch whiskey was in abundance at every table. In fact, our table was called “Bruichladdich”, which wikipedia just informed me is a Scottish distillery. Certainly appropriate for the night. I am not a fan of scotch myself, but the other guests at my table thoroughly enjoyed the Laphroaig (pronounced “la-fruyg”) provided for us. Farrell, unfortunately, was banned from having any, despite being somewhat of a scotch connoisseur when we’re not in war zones. He assured me that it was probably really good stuff.
So, I’m sure you’re wondering…what does boiled sheep guts taste like? Umm…amazing! I have to admit I was definitely wary about eating it. It’s thick, soft, and heavy. There was none of that iron or bloody taste that I was expecting. It really was just the ultimate comfort food. Hearty, meaty, and rich. Tradition dictates serving haggis with “mashed neeps,” rutabega, which helped to lighten the meal so that I didn’t fall over in a haggis overdose. The other dishes offered were just as fantastic and full of flavor. A true pleasure. I was so surprised that KBR could cook such delicious dishes (especially considering the kind of food that the same company serves us every day!)
What did I learn about Robert Burns? He loved “the fairer sex” and whiskey, sold a whopping 3,000 copies of his poetry book when it was first released, was beloved by Scots for writing in the Scottish dialect and wrote in such a rhythm that many of his works were translated into folk songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Red, Red Rose”.
Unfortunately, because of somebody’s visit to Iraq that I’m not supposed to mention for security reasons, the U.S. ambassador was unable to attend, but several other ambassadors were there. I did not realize it would be such an elite crowd! A coworker of mine only got on the list to attend a few hours before the supper and happened to get a seat at the VIP table and spent a good part of the night hanging out with her new best friend, the British ambassador!
At the end of the night, after a couple stunning renditions of songs based on Burns’ poetry, all the guests circled the room and interlocked arms and sang “Auld Lang Syne” to complete the official traditions of the night.
It was so refreshing to be able to escape from my metal box for one night and surround myself with new friends, new traditions, lots of laughter and whiskey, and, of course, boiled animal innards.
Happy birthday, Robert Burns!