Two Saturdays ago I went back in time. I left the Apple Store with a shiny new Flux-Capacitor which was 'fluxing' very nicely (soon to be a new craze in fluffy canine waxing) but will inevitably self-destruct as Apple's finest tend to do just after the free-warranty period. I attached the device to my Zipcar in Covent Garden, and to my surprise; managed to clear enough free road to get up to 88mph - a liberty experienced in many rural areas yet borders impossible in central London. Just before putting pedal to metal, I set the time gauge and then took flight along the ardous journey to get to 90 mph in less than 5 minutes - due to a car as heavy and frustrating as the plot from Back To The Future Part II. After stalling four times, and having to get three people to help turn the damn steering wheel (Michael J makes it look easy) I finally flashed back to 1520, parked up the DeLorean, and set off in the Scottish rain to track down the poet of the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.
This poem features the generally accepted first mention of the word 'haggeis', and I was on a mission to find out the great dish's origins. I banged on the impressive oak doors of the castle of King James IV and requested to see one William Dunbar - known to be a hang-around of the King's court, and the principal person of blue-blood to mention Haggis. I abruptly had the castle door slammed in my face, before getting a rotten tomato and piece of horse meat thrown at me (it tasted just like Tesco lasagne), and got told to jog on by a fiery scottish mistress who looked like the 28th great grandmother of Alex Salmond (but with more facial hair and slightly less charm). She told me with a lovely Aberdeen lilt that I was in the wrong century, and that I needed to get my non-Celtic arsee over to 1430's Lancashire. I asked why and she told me that 'Hegese' had come from the Liber Cure Cocorum cookbook, in the north west of England. So off I went, to discover the origins of Haggis...100s of miles from the border of Scotland, in I'll say again: England. The Liber Cure Cocorum is generally accepted to feature the first ever mention of Haggis - a good half centurty before the first reference in Scotland. After a ridiculous amount of yelling for signs of human life in 1430 (and trying to hide my DeLorean in a desolate craggy landscape with a lack of tall trees) I finally found the author of the Liber Cure and asked them to explain to me the true contents of Haggis. After negotiating some very ye olde english slang, I came to decipher that the dish features minced heart, lungs and liver of "a beast" (we now get lazy and use sheep, but in those days, I'm not ruling out Minotaur haggis, or Mr Tumnus haggis). The remaining ingredients are onions, suet, pepper, salt, ground coriander seed...all boiled in a stomach, or sausage-like skin of some sort. There's one more key ingredient: oatmeal. It was lucky my distant northern descendant happened to mention this last ingredient before crawling back into her dingy hole (a place now commonly known as 'Manchester in the winter'). I say lucky, because my girlfriend can't eat wheat products, yet happens to be the very person who had days prior, invited me to a haggis party - which she was ordering the haggis for. After much umming, I reluctantly decided not to visit Elvis, and use my last tube of radioactive time-travel plutonium for good use: to get myself back to 2015, where there's not a hoverboard or auto-drying jacket in sight.
Having reverse-parked the DeLorean on a double-flamed line (it keeps London's parking attendant vermin away), I found myself, to quote the deeply underappreciated Huey Lewis & The News track, 'Back In Time' for this haggis celebration: Burns' Night. I was informed by my wheat-free partner, that this dinnerparty was to be hosted by two Scots, and attended by even more Scots, featuring Scottish food and general all-round scottishness in a house rented solely by...Scots. Within 15 minutes of arriving, I passed the pro-independence sticker on the wall and was showered with an array of culinary wonders, all before the traditional main course of 'Haggis, Neeps and Tatties'. Considering we were there to celebrate Burns' Night, there was not a burnt thing in sight, with perfectly constructed homemade scotch eggs, followed by fried haggis balls...and speaking on behalf of all arrogantly ignorant Englishmen out there; it wouldn't be a scottish party unless there was something fried. I nibbled down on some very mature cheese (it must have gone through it's angry teenage period early).Then finally, we arose on each side of the room like two rows of Edinburgh Royal Tattooists (the bagpipe kind, not the drunken 'I Heart Scotland' 3am tattoo kind) in order to salute the procession of 'Haggis Neeps & Tatties'. Music was abruptly turned off, chairs were gathered around and sheepish bowls of the sheep bowels were laid out (well - stomach, but you get the point).
Then came the most important part of the ritual: a reading of Robert Burn's beloved 'Address to a Haggis'. I wondered how he would have felt if sat observing us: everyone's meals looked, at first glance, identical. On closer observation however, one would notice that every other plate was part of the terrible trio of words that meat-heads and wheat-heads fear: vegetarian, vegan and gluten free. Now, I am luckily enough that I do not have to live life's culinary experiences hampered by any of these bodily-imposed or self-imposed dietary conditions. I usually feel pride at being able to eat whatever the hell I want, but as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman proved in Se7en; pride can be a (quite literally) deadly sin. It was during my second or third bite on my incredibly tantalising haggis that I looked over and witnessed a large proportion of attendees munch down on their untrue haggis, and unbelievably I began to feel a pang of jealousy, which grew inside me until each scoop of my own dish became less and less tasty. Why did this happen when I felt blessed at having food cooked for me, by a wonderful bunch of Scots? And then I realised: it was because I did not possess a challenge that needed overcoming. My battle had been won by my body's natural acceptance of this haggis. But to 'battle in the face of adversity' brings surprising levels of joy, and I realised I had been deprived of it. Restriction poses challenges, and challenges provoke mental stimulation. Every gluten free and vegan person around me was using a magical skill I lacked: resourcefully attempting to live an experience which one's body or beliefs has asserted one cannot.
Some of you may hold contestation at my earlier term where I implied anything other than original haggis is a falsity. My argument is that, if haggis is not made of it's full traditional ingredients, does it make it untrue? Absolutely. But does this make it invalid or any less of a wonderful sensation when eating it? Absolutely not. Some may disagree with my statement that haggis is 'untrue' just because it is made of a gluten-less or meat-less substitute, but I'd counter argue that most things that turn out to be true and expected in life are never as fun as the fun that comes with constructing an imitation of truth. It's why children exist the way they do: they are constantly dreaming and problem-solving ways to imitate a truth that is beyond them or impossible: an astronaut, a fairy, an animal, a monster with two heads and fire-breath. The dreamers of the world are the ones restricted by their diets and beliefs. In an ironic sense, their restrictions actually liberate them. I found myself enjoying my wonderfully cooked true haggis much less, because I was aware that I had no obstacle to overcome, and I know my childhood would have been a lot less fun if I had no barriers to imagine my way around. When it comes to having a dietary condition, or a restrictive moral point of view on food: imitation beats raw truth. This was 100% true of the gluten-free haggis, which I decided to try after completing my true haggis. I had far more fun on this gluten-free serving hearing my body say "how amazing and inventive, you can't even tell the difference" instead of the first dish, where my inner palet proclaimed in an Edinburgh-twang "aye, this is indeed haggis, you've had it before, it's lovely and you'll nae doubt have it again." This inner-monologue is how I like to imagine my girlfriend lives, as a newly-converted coeliac: to me her food life can appear daunting and sprinkled with pessimism daily, but actually there's immense fun to be had in endlessly problem solving, as she constantly pines to imitate what the common man passes off as "just another nice meal".
Over the past few months, I've experienced my fair share of gluten-free dishes, and I'll be honest: the initial look of certain dishes implied a large serving of crappiness, but having now tasted a range of gluten free dishes, this is one pursuit I want to continue nibbling away at. By looking through the eyes of my girlfriend and seeing food as a somewhat frustrating puzzle, I'm starting to feel more connected to what I'm shovelling past my epiglottis flap. The gluten free haggis itself was rather special and I may never go back to true haggis. I'll even continue to search for crappy alternatives to hearty scrumptious dishes, in a bid to find the greatest imitation dish of them all. I'm essentially searching for the next Great Pretender, although no person or dish will beat the original (Freddie Mercury, I forever salute you). I wonder how one of this nation's greatest dreamers would take to my gluten-free imitation challenge: Robert Burns possesed a willingness to express sincerity and directness in equal measure. He spoke eloquently yet feverishly about the crappier elements of society, voicing his thougts on cultural identity, class inequality, republicansim and poverty. He never imitated, he innovated - and I believe I would have had a job addessing him to the emotional wonders of the untrue haggis. We do share a comment point though - Burns' works swayed from extreme highs to extreme lows, and I believe he found just as much if not more inspiration in his deepest of initially percieved lows, just as I do. There are many issues in the word, and when approached from the crappier end, there's a greater will and intensity to imitate and innovate a way around them.
So in the end, as I sat chomping at the bit, the gluten free bit, and the vegan bit, I drifed away to 1790 and wondering how a 31 year old Burns would have felt about the rise in the dietary conditions and food particularities of the 21st century. Perhaps he would have delivered an Address to a Coeliac, or an Address to a Vegan. Or maybe, like the Royal Mail have proved, some addresses are just too challenging to deliver. If that is the case, we'll just have to rustle up our inner-child and imagine an Address every bit as convincing as the classic (and surprisingly long) original. And it's not just Burns: there's been an array of other literary expressions for gluten-free lovers: my personal pick? "Ce-coeliac, you're breaking my heart. You're shaking my confidence daily." The Scottish have Burns, we have...Suggs. Thank god they didn't go independent. Haggis that's it then.