by Jeff Adams
I’m one of those Southerners who has always been fascinated by the history of my family as well as my region. In tracing my genealogy, I know that my personal lineage is primarily Scottish and Irish. Therefore, I have a special affinity for things from these two countries. That being said, one thing in my cultural heritage that never really excited me was the idea of eating haggis. For those not familiar with what haggis is, it is considered to be the national dish of Scotland. Haggis is, to a degree, a sausage-like dish of meat mixed with oatmeal, onions and spices, and traditionally stuffed into a casing. The meat, usually mutton, although occasionally beef, is basically ground innards, and the casing is the stomach of a sheep.
The traditional recipes for haggis made sure that nothing went to waste on an animal. This meant that haggis usually consisted of kidneys, the liver, heart and other internal organs, including the lungs. Not too surprisingly, haggis seems to be popular in America only on St. Andrews Day, at Scottish Clan Society functions and Scottish Festivals, and on Robert Burns Night, which is a celebration held in honor of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, and takes place on his birthday, January 25th. While the details of what goes into the creation of traditional haggis might leave the average American without an appetite, leave it to a Texan to take this Scottish dish and modify it to accommodate the American palate.
Jim Walters, of Lewisville, Texas, is a proud Southerner of Scottish decent. Like many Americans of Scottish ancestry, Mr. Walters revels in his heritage and has spent time researching his family history, going to Highland games festivals, and even has made trips to Scotland. In fact, it was in 1989 while on his first trip to Scotland that Mr. Walters had his first taste of haggis and discovered that despite its negative reputation in America, the taste was quite extraordinary.
Thinking that haggis had gotten a raw deal concerning its reputation in the U.S., in true American style Walters saw an entrepreneurial opportunity and decided to start his own business offering haggis, which can be viewed at www.caledoniankitchen.com. As you might expect of an American product, Jim’s haggis can be purchased in the can (for those who wish to skip having their food stuffed into the stomach of some dead animal). While Walters may be of Scottish descent, as a Texan he isn’t necessarily that interested in mutton. In Texas, beef is king. If you don’t believe this, just try telling any Texan that you can barbeque something other than beef, and prepare yourself for an argument. With this in mind, Jim decided to make his haggis using beef. Breaking with Scottish tradition (thankfully), Walters decided to skip the left over parts of a cow and use better cuts of beef for his haggis, specifically USDA Choice Sirloin beef and beef liver. Walters says that a Texas cultural equivalent to haggis is chili. Originally, chili was made from leftover, not-so-fresh beef, and was popular with the fabled Mexican Vaquero and Texas Cowboy. The fiery spices hid the potentially suspect beef. Just as in Scotland, nothing was ever wasted. Just as the best Texas Chili made today uses only the best ingredients, so does Walters’ haggis.
A born promoter, if haggis is mentioned around Walters, he gets a sparkle in his eyes and, using his imposing 6’3" stature to help enthrall his audience, begins to cast his spell over all within earshot about the joys of haggis, and especially his "Americanized" version. Actually, Jim doesn’t always wait for an invitation to start talking about his haggis, but his gregarious personality makes it impossible to not stop and listen as he tells his stories and enthralls everyone with his humor and upbeat personality. Walters’ vindication of the noble haggis has become a mission filled with fun and zaniness. Walters’ haggis has taken off in Scottish circles in America, and has tended to get rave reviews. Late last year, Scotland Magazine held a contest to compare some of the finest haggis produced in Scotland. Since almost half of the subscribers to their on-line version of the magazine were in America, they decided to include an American haggis in their competition, and Jim Walters’ Caledonian Kitchen haggis was selected for the American entry. Due to shipping considerations, rather than sending a frozen version of his haggis, Mr. Walters submitted his canned version.
The judges for this contest included 3 professional Scottish Chefs, including the Executive Chef and Head Chef of the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews. The rest of the judges consisted of writers for various gourmet and food magazines throughout the UK. Jim’s canned haggis had to compete against "home grown" versions that were fresh in the casing for judging. Competing against some of the biggest establishment names for making haggis in Scotland, including McSweens, McKeans and Crombie’s, Walters’ Caledonian Kitchen haggis finished a respectable fifth. The critiques naturally dealt with the presentation. After all, what Scotsman would want to eat haggis from a can when they can eat it fresh out of a sheep’s stomach? But the taste was declared superb. The official results should be published in the February/March 2003 issue of Scotland Magazine.
In October of last year I got the chance to try Jim Walters’ haggis, and have to admit that I was a little apprehensive since I had eaten haggis u2018straight from the stomach’ at a Burns Night celebration I attended several years ago in Fort Worth, TX. I was not overly exuberant about the taste at the time. The haggis I was served then was definitely made from less than the better parts of a sheep and tasted a bit like lumpy pt to me. Since I’m not a liver fan, it wasn’t something I wanted on a regular basis. However, when Mr. Walters provided me with a package of his haggis, I discovered three cans in the box he sent me. At first, I thought the cans too large for me to sample, and being of Scottish descent myself, and full of tight-fisted Scottish-ness, I couldn’t help but be concerned about thriftiness, and didn’t want to end up throwing away a half-eaten can of food. I enlisted the help of my 10-year-old daughter to sample the contents. Once we opened the can, heated up the contents, and tasted Jim Walters’ haggis, the can suddenly appeared too small. My daughter and I both wanted more than the serving provided in one can. This definitely wasn’t the haggis of left over sheep parts I’d had before, and my daughter found herself actually enjoying haggis! While I didn’t celebrate Burns night this year, I did a "preemptive strike" and took time for my family to partake of the Caledonian Kitchen’s haggis on St. Andrews Day last year, which is November 30th.
For those interested in trying Jim Walters’ Caledonian Kitchen haggis, he offers a variety of order sizes for his canned haggis, as well as a "presentation haggis," which, as you might guess, is properly stuffed into a "casing" for those Burns Night celebrations. Visit Jim Walter’s site listed above, and this self-anointed "Laird O’ Tha Haggis" will readily answer any correspondence. This is one dish that could easily catch on in the U.S. in its Americanized form. I know I’ll be buying more, but only in the can.