When it comes to food, I am not a man who likes to take risks. This would explain why four days a week for the past decade, I have eaten exactly the same bland lunch: a turkey and mustard sandwich on wheat with a dozen Town House Crackers and a side of grapes. For about six months back in 2012, I got a little gutsy and added pickles to the sandwich. But even that turned out to be too much trouble.
You see, I can’t stand the idea of something dripping out of my sandwich, and pickles never come dry from the jar. So each time I made lunch, I folded a paper towel in half, laid it on a dessert plate, and placed the pickles in the center. Next I gently blotted off the juice. Only then would I add the sour topping to my sandwich. I even came up with a name for this maneuver. I called it the “pickle pat-down.” But eventually a fellow becomes self-conscious about a habit like that, and I went back to plain turkey and mustard.
I suppose I’ve had a few moments of culinary daring-do in my life — some of them not on purpose. I was 6 years old the first time I went to a wedding, and during the reception I followed my cousins outside, where they were decorating the honeymoon car. I was delighted to see that they were covering the Oldsmobile with whipped cream, so I scooped up a handful and bit down with gleeful abandon. That’s when I discovered why shaving cream was not meant to be eaten. All I needed was a swig of Aqua Velva to chase it down.
A few years later my parents went out for one evening and left my teenage brother, Jim, in charge of dinner. He plopped some frozen ground beef into a skillet. Then he dumped a can of cream of mushroom soup on top. Since it took so long for the meat to thaw, Jim just kept adding stuff to the concoction — whatever he could find in the pantry. It goes without saying, of course, that he had no idea what he was doing. When it was all done, Jim called the result “Moo Goo.” By then we were so hungry that we ate it. Later we coined the phrase, “Revenge of the Moo Goo.”
Last month, I had a flashback when I found myself staring into yet another fetid pile of meat-flavored ooze. Yes, laddie. I had laid me eyes on a haggis.
You see, the English department threw our first annual Burns Supper on Jan. 25. For those who don’t know, this traditional event honors the birthday of Robert Burns, the 18th century poet who is considered a national hero in Scotland. The meal featured traditional U.K. fare like bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) and included recitals of Burns poetry, ending with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. The poet was born in 1759, and the cake we ordered read, “Happy 266th birthday, Bobbie Burns.” Needless to say, we are not the math department.
But more than 50 people attended, and the centerpiece of the festivities was a rendering of Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis” by Dr. Chuck Bane, our resident Scot. Resplendent in a traditional kilt and slicing feverishly into the steaming mound of pulpy mush, Dr. Bane serenaded the haggis in full brogue and then bid us all to taste it.
Sometimes it is best not to ask questions. I am faintly aware that the ingredients for haggis include oatmeal, onions and various and sundry innards of a sheep, but I would rather treat the recipe like auld acquaintance — “let it be forgot and never brought to mind.” Of course, true haggis is illegal in the U.S., as the FDA is a tad squeamish where bleating hearts are concerned. So what we had was technically “haggis lite,” though that fact gave little comfort.
As one of the alleged hosts of the event, I had the honor of trying the first spoonful of haggis, which, incidentally, was the original wording for the beloved Mary Poppins song. Anyway, in the spirit of the occasion, and against all the deepest leanings of my soul, I raised the bite of haggis as a toast. I was sorely tempted to dab it with a napkin, but I decided that even blotting it with sandpaper probably wouldn’t help. The scent of fresh game was overpowering. But I held my nose and gave it a try.
The only way I can capture the experience is to put it in rhyme:
There once was a piping hot haggis,
Whose odor could torture and gag us.
One bite fresh from the blender
Made this food wimp surrender,
And I heaved as I waved the white flaggis.