Robert Burns Dinner: A Salute to Scotland’s Bawdy Bard
Round about January 25th of each year, there are glasses of whisky raised and platters of haggis saluted the world over, in memory of one of Scotland’s own, the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796), a farmer’s son whose poems and songs combined the best of traditional tunes, sentiment, and more than a bit of bawdy humor. With titles like “Beware, o’ Bonie Ann, “My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet,” And “Forlorn My Love, No Comfort Here,” you get the point. Burns was a notorious ladies’ man, and on his birthday, dinners are held to imbibe, relish classic Scottish foods, and even to recite a bit of the poet’s work (or, better, to sing his songs).
According to the Harvard Classics: “Scarcely any known author has succeeded so brilliantly in combining his work with folk material, or in carrying on with such continuity of spirit the tradition of popular song. In spite of the fact that he was constantly in severe financial straits, he refused to accept any recompense for this work, preferring to regard it as a patriotic service. And it was, indeed, a patriotic service of no small magnitude. By birth and temperament he was singularly fitted for the task, and this fitness is proved by the unique extent to which his productions were accepted by his countrymen, and have passed into the life and feeling of his race.”
Ready to join the Burns society and kick off your own Burns dinner? No, you don’t have to hire a bagpiper and serve haggis, but here’s a lineup of dishes that honor the spirit of the man. (For more on the custom of the Burns Dinner, see this story from the BBC.
Cock-a-leekie Soup: Chicken and leeks soup, in other words, is the usual first course at a Burns dinner. A traditional Scottish soup, cock-a-leekie combines chicken broth, chicken thighs, celery, thyme, and parsley with barley and about seven to eight sliced leeks. This Chicken, Lentil, and Barley Soup is close to cock-a-leekie, and gives you an added bonus of tomatoes, lentils, and carrots.
Mashed Neeps and Tatties (also known as Clapshot): Neeps is the Scottish word for rutabaga, or yellow turnip, and tatties the term for the humble potato. Put them together (2 pounds of spuds to 1 1/2 of rutabaga) along with a third cup of milk, a quarter cup of butter, and salt to taste. This recipe for Mashed Roots with Buttermilk & Chives (using Yukon Gold potatoes, along with rutabaga) is worthy of the bard!
Oats are a key part of Scotland’s rib-sticking good food. And in the Burns tradition, they come in the form of oat cakes called bannocks, a type of flatbread that’s served with cheese. This Olive, Oat, and Whole Wheat Bread is a fun twist on the idea of bannocks. Toasted and cut in bite-size slices, it’s a great complement to cheese.
Scottish Shortbread is a thing of beauty, typically made with but four ingredients (butter, sugar, flour, and milk or cream) and light as a feather. Our Buttery Shortbread Pastry Dough adds an egg and a touch of lemon juice, for richness with a hint of citrus. You can use this dough for tarts or cookies. And if you want to combine two Scots traditions in one, try these Oatmeal Shortbread.
OK, altogether now, raise a glass of good Scotch whisky, and bellow the last stanza to Burn’s “Farewell to the Banks of Ayr“:
Farewell, old Coila’s hills and dales,
Her healthy moors and winding vales;
The scenes where wretched Fancy roves,
Pursuing past, unhappy loves!
Farewell my friends! farewell my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
The bursting tears my heart declare—
Farewell, the bonie banks of Ayr!