amazing and cool shit, lovely things

…haggis…

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This is the only way I can do certain things. I vett recipes, or at least the processes going on, look for the proportions and ratios of ingredients; liquid to dry, where or when something is toasted, roasted, dried, simmered and for how long. It’s how I know what I really need and what I’m actually going to be doing when I’m ‘doing’ it…

Of course nothing works out quite like the ‘plan’. Nothing prepares you for haggis. Even more these days, haggis itself, I’ve found, is a flexible thing… Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all. Sometimes, things evolve. If you get too fixated on some recipe, or particulars, you miss the real point.

I got a call one day – it’s the way the whole thing started – from a darling woman named Darcie, a gal I’ve known since high school. We lost touch for many years and reconnected via Facebook only recently. She is an earthy, honest and caring woman. Structured and sensible, responsible, yet artsy fartsy, poetic, and totally capable of cussing in a manner that would make a trucker blush. All spoken in soft, almost giggling tones. She’s a lovely person. She introduced to me, after discovering my love of cooking, her best friend, Lynne, who’d be taking part in this whole affair as well, who happens to be a professional chef – a celebrity of sorts.

That’s not an intimidating thing to me anymore, though it was the first time I met her. It consisted of me cooking them lunch; a picnic, sort of, consisting of things I made and thankfully, a lot of wine… I remember it; the rillettes I’d made from leftovers of a 60# roasted pig that I’d stored as confit, the home cured prosciutto style ham, the salt cured duck, the onion tart, olives, grapes, the cheeses… and homemade baguette from my wild yeast… A frightening thing for a grotesquely obsessed, yet mediocre, home cook in an emotionally fragile state. I made it through. She didn’t barf. In fact, she seemed to like and admire what I’d done. I’ve loved her ever since, too.

Darcie had eaten haggis before, and with Robert Burns day approaching, she got the idea that we’d make it ourselves and eat some. A lovely thought. She left me with sourcing the ingredients and I knew I could, actually, amazingly, do that. Prepared to call my butcher on Monday, I got a message from Lynne – she knew a butcher too, a different one, who had everything on hand. (Everything? Really…? Amazing!) Me? I knew it was special order, even if it was only going to take a few days… I told her to go ahead and order it through hers. I’m never going to second guess a chef.

Maybe it’s a tangent of thought, but I really appreciate and treasure the path I’ve taken. Mostly, I like the way I take some things literally. A sheep’s stomach, the casing of the haggis, was replaced with caul fat, an interesting and suitable thing, but nothing I would have ever done. Liver was replaced with tongue; lungs replaced by kidneys, which never made it to the grinding/assembly party… The mixture was augmented with Lamb shoulder. Lynne had prepped, cooked and cooled most of the ingredients the day before, packed them for us to grind and assemble, along with the court bouillon she’d simmered them in. Not that there’s anything wrong with substituting things, but somehow it wasn’t what I was hoping for… I wanted to see them whole; uncooked, raw, bloody. I think sometimes things should be a little bit scary and make you feel a bit weak; make it obvious that something died to give you that meal…

Suddenly, all of that changed… Arriving at Darcie’s, I got to meet her kids and then their friend, ‘Bill’…

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Maybe it’s the real reason why I love and admire people like Darcie and Lynne. Lying in the middle of the kitchen table, on a glass platter, was a freshly killed widgeon – “Bill” – quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was frozen and distracted – like a deer in headlights – once again having an all too familiar moment of seeing another form of virginity about to be lost…

I got the honors of plucking and eviscerating, which I’d read about but had never in my entire life, done before…

Lynne showed me where and how to start; pluck around the tummy first from the breast bone (easily located by feel), down around the anus and tail. Then she showed me where to make the slit and left me with a bag for feathers, a bowl for the guts and her knife… The feathers, I discovered come out easily and in hunks with simple crunchy pull, though there’s a fine undercoat that’s more like hair than feather… I plucked the neck so I could cut the windpipe… Finally, I pinched the anus, was greeted with a small spit of duck shit, then began to circle around it with the knife. I remembered this part from reading about slaughtering large animals, which I’ve never done before either, but it made sense to start with that anyway. Then I made a slit through the belly, from the ring-cut around the anus up to the breast bone…

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A wonderful, tremendous, ‘ducky’ stench was my reward, along with an (almost) steaming heap of guts, which spilled, sort of, into the bowl… At least part of them… I recognized many of them and immediately began picking out the things I knew; gizzard, liver… The heart actually stayed, attached to the system with the aorta and other veins, along with the lungs. The boning knife went in where hands didn’t fit and I carved them out.

I realized, looking in the bowl, I had all of the ingredients to make a duck haggis; lungs, heart, liver, and a stomach, which was spilling out a few blades of grass. I wondered if it could be stuffed… Then pondered how one could actually stuff such a tiny stomach, capable of perhaps holding a teaspoon or so of anything, and what would be the best way of cooking it… Steamed and then fried? Maybe it’s moments like this where I realize the wonderful beauty of things like haggis. The notion of using one part to case some other parts, the way sometimes things ‘fit’ and other times they don’t. The care that goes in to creating it. The trial, the error, the next trial…

I give up the notion of stuffing Bill’s stomach, but pull out the lungs and heart, along with the liver and add those to the meats we’re grinding up. It is haggis now – not because it’s got lungs and liver and a little bit more heart, but because it’s made me pause, it pushed me somewhere beyond, made me realize I could do something I’d never done before.

We mix, season and spice, add a splash of 15 year old single malt scotch, assemble, wrap, set the haggis to simmer. Bill’s carcass is now trimmed and looking awfully scrawny next to the ducks I’ve roasted and parted. He’s sprinkled with salt and left to sit and dry… We settle down for beer and conversation… We get lost in each other for a while, read poems, smoke, drink more, laugh at and with each other and ask questions we wouldn’t normally think appropriate… Finally we eat. It’s a lovely and simple meal. Haggis, some mashed potatoes.

There’s nothing scary or odd about things like this. It’s a meal that is meant to be made and eaten by many hands and mouths, shared and loved as much for the company it commands as the well as the appreciation of life, death, friendship, love and awe it yields. I am growing to realize these things are all one in the same.

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