Yes, you CAN have a vegetarian Burns Night supper

How to honor the 'immortal memory' of Robert Burns without sacrificing your vegetarian principles.

By Mike Lewis

Robert Burns

For too long, the Burns Night supper - the highlight of the calendar for Scots everywhere - has been a turnoff for vegetarians. On or near January 25 each year, Scots gather for a feast in honor of the birth of their greatest poet. But the menu is too often dominated by meat and fish dishes, and veggies often feel they get a raw deal.

It needn't be that way. Just as vegetarians have found ways of adapting traditional Christmas, Thanksgiving and Passover meals to their dietary preference, so too can they on Burns Night. Some purists will scoff at that idea, and will tell you that a meat-free Burns supper would be a travesty. But that's rubbish. Burns himself loved good food and drink, and would have been delighted to see people feast on the dishes they enjoy the most.

What can't I eat?

The biggest problem for vegetarians is the centerpiece of the meal - the 'great chieften o' the puddin-race' - the haggis. If you don't know what goes into a haggis - well, it's not for me to tell you. Just take my word for it - if you're a vegetarian, you definitely don't want to go near it.

Fortunately, meat-free varieties of this quintessential dish are becoming increasingly easy to find. Restaurants and hotels in Scotland will usually offer it as an option on Burns Night. A ready-made version, under the trade name Macsweens, can be found in larger Scottish supermarkets (paradoxically, it's also sold by butchers). Outside Scotland, you might be able to buy vegetarian haggis on-line.

It's also reasonably easy to make veggie (and vegan) haggis at home - see, for example, our own Veg World vegan haggis recipe. Although the store-bought variety is perfectly acceptable, the home-made version is, in my humble opinion, far superior. I've served it many times to dinner guests, always with great success. Even habitual meat-eaters have said they prefer to it to the traditional article.

At some Burns Night suppers, the haggis is the main dish, while at others it's served as a side course - but always with much ceremony. Either way, there will be several other items on the menu that vegetarians must watch out for.

At a traditional supper, the first course is usually a meat-based soup. This might be cock-a-leekie (chicken and leeks), Scotch broth (made with a beef base) or bawd bree (hare soup). The soup is sometimes followed by a fish course - traditionally herrings, but now more likely to be salmon. The main course - if not haggis - will usually be roastit beef (roast beef) or bubblyjock (turkey).

The veggie way

Happily, it's easy to find veggie alternatives for all those dishes. What's more, you can do so without sacrificing the authentic flavors or traditions of the Burns supper - and without having to accept anything less than excellent food.

For several years, I helped organize a Burns Night supper for the South East Scotland Vegetarian Society. This was held in a member's home, with around 15 to 20 people at the table. I cooked the haggis, and other guests brought the side dishes and trimmings. We followed the traditional format reasonably closely. The food was always delicious, and the event was invariably a big success.

Burns supper menu

Here's the bill of fare for one of those dinners (see illustration, right).

Leek and potato soup is an excellent alternative to cock-a-leekie. It's very easy to make, and can be prepared well in advance. Of course, it's also possible to make a vegetarian cock-a-leekie, and there are plenty of other veggie-friendly broths that you could choose instead.

The haggis needs no further comment, but the accompaniments might require some explanation. Champit tatties are simply mashed potatoes. Neeps is the Scots term for turnip, but what the Scots call turnip is what the English call swede and the Americans call rutabaga. Bashed neeps are mashed turnips. (See also What exactly are neeps?)

The potatoes and turnips are sometimes mashed together with seasoning and butter to make a concoction called clapshaw. This is a delicious dish in its own right, and one that I can recommend as an accompaniment to all kind of meals, not just on January 25.

Moving to the desserts, tipsy laird is similar to the English sherry trifle. This is a rich pudding, made with a sponge cake base, covered with fruit, custard and whipped cream. It usually has some alcoholic content - in this case, sherry, but it might also be port or madeira.

A popular alternative dessert is cranachan, a very indulgent pudding made from toasted oatmeal, fruit and heavy cream (see our cranachan recipe). It's easy to make, and absolutely delicious. At one time, the cranachan ingredients were served separately, and those present would mix them according to taste at the table. Today, it's most often served as a single dish.

To complete the meal, you should serve fresh fruit, cheese, coffee and/or tea. At our Vegetarian Society dinners, we tried always to offer dunlop, which is a specialty cheese from Burns' home district of Ayrshire. But this isn't always easy to find, even in Scotland, so we usually resorted to a mixed plate of good-quality British cheeses.

The ritual

Of course, good food is only part of the Burns Night tradition. The ceremonies, speeches and toasts are equally important. At formal suppers, these are taken very seriously. At smaller gatherings, they might be treated less formally, but always with respect.

The proceedings start with a few words of welcome from the designated chairman, followed the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat
and sae the Lord be thankit.

Vegetarians needn't be put off by the references to meat. In Burns' day, meat was usually used as a term for food in general.

Just as the haggis is the centerpiece of the meal, the 'piping in' of the haggis is the keynote of the ritual. At an appropriate time, the chairman will ask the diners to stand. The chef then enters, carrying the 'beastie' in from the kitchen, preceded by a piper and followed by an assistant carrying a bottle or two of whisky. The procession marches around the room to the accompaniment of a slow hand clap from the assembled guests.

If you can't run to a piper, another musician can take the role. A fiddle player would be an excellent choice, as Burns was especially fond of fiddle music. At our own suppers, we sometimes had to resort to a tape or CD of pipe music, which greatly upset the purists but did no harm at all to the atmosphere. Good Scottish music is an essential ingredient of a successful Burns Night.

After the piping in, the chairman offers a dram of whisky to the piper and the chef. Either the chairman, or someone especially granted the honor to do so, then proceeds to recite the Address to a Haggis. This is followed my much toasting, and then by the main part of the meal.

More speeches and toasts follow the dessert. At a formal Burns supper, there will always be a eulogy to Burns known as the Immortal Memory. This will ideally be delivered by an accomplished speaker with particular knowledge of the poet and his work. It will be followed by the Toast to the Lassies, a response to that toast, and an appreciation of the Immortal Memory.

Of course, at a less formal gathering, you can shorten these items, but don't skip them completely. The ritual is an enjoyable part of the evening, even if you don't take it completely seriously. An authentic Burns Night supper, with good veggie food, a respect for the ceremonies, and plenty of traditional Scottish music, will be an evening you'll remember for a long time.

October 2005

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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