I love Burns Night Suppers, hosted by some Scottish friends who live near us. Nearly every January 25th (or thereabouts), they invite friends to this lively, lovely event. It's a Scottish tradition that's more than just a meal with friends –- there's a sequence to the evening that includes toasts and responses, poetry, whisky, Scottish dishes, and of course, the celebration and address to the haggis, carried steaming hot into the dining room accompanied by bagpipe music. It's all done in the wonderful fun spirit of the man himself, Robert Burns, who loved a good time, good laughs, good food and good friends–and the magic and power of language.
Guests deliver rousing whisky toasts—long and substantive and fun—starting with The Immortal Memory Toast to Robert Burns; then a male guest gives the Toast to the Lassies, and a female guest delivers the Reply to the Laddies, often very saucy toasts and retorts. This is followed by more toasts, perhaps some Burns poetry or songs, more courses of good food, more music.
The Burns Supper's centerpiece dish is haggis (a savory sausagey thing that’s quite tasty, though I skip it, being a non-meat-eater), along with neeps ‘n tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and perhaps salmon or lamb and veggies followed by a dessert of shortbread and fruit trifle or a creamy raspberry-and-oats cranachan. Then a sip more whisky if you like, and perhaps a finish of strong brewed tea. All that, and good friends, makes a very special evening.
Burns Night is celebrated on January 25, the poet’s birthday, or as near as one can manage the date. I’ve written a few Immortal Memory Toasts and Toasts to the Laddies, quite fun to do (I’ve blogged about that previously if you want to read the whole Immortal Memory Toast).
Not everyone in Scotland or of Scottish descent celebrates Burns Night, though it’s a widely known annual event that honors a brilliant, bold, rebellious and romantic poet, a literati and a working class educated man, and altogether a fascinating lad. His life wasn’t perfect—his behavior certainly wasn’t—but his work even today reads filled with passion for Scotland, for its history, its romantic, noble heart, for women, love, friendship, loyalty–and his lines as bawdy as they are heroic, at times.
And this year’s annual Burns Night Supper got me thinking about suppers for special historical people. If I were to host a supper to celebrate a favorite person from history, who would I choose, and what would some of the features of this supper be? And while I’m inviting people – why not invite more than one person from another century?
Joan of Arc – I’ve loved her since I was a little Catholic girl fascinated by the teenager who spoke with angels and boldly followed her destiny and convictions to lead an army to war and find the courage later to face the flames. My great-grandmother grew up a few miles from where Joan lived, so Jehanne la Pucelle and I would have lots to talk about (I’d brush up on my French before she arrived!). I’d ask her what she thought of the English (she and other French soldiers called them the “Goddams” because they overheard the English swearing by their campfires at night). And I’d show her my bookshelves—I have dozens of books about her.
I’d invite Sir Walter Scott too – a lovely man, I imagine. We could discuss Scottish
history and his role in originating historical fiction and, yes, historical romance. I’d also hope he’d talk to me about his library of 9,000 volumes on history, legend, and British culture at Abbotsford, his beautiful home (which I’ve visited more than once, and will drool over forever).
Mary, Queen of Scots – She’s always had my sympathy—she was a beautiful young woman raised in the elite bubble of the French court and sent home to Scotland to rule over some rough, ruthless, conniving men who did their best to undermine her. She was too easily influenced and made mistakes, but she was fascinating. I’d want to ask her about her life, her relationships, what really happened between her and her cousin Elizabeth. I think Sir Walter Scott would be delighted to speak with Mary, and both of them could converse with Joan of Arc in French.
There are so many guests on my wish list — Leonardo da Vinci. Robert Bruce. Jane Austen (Sir Walter Scott would love to sit beside her, as he much admired her work). Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, whose portraits were so tender and full of life during a hard turn in French history. Tolkein–I'd want to know how he tapped into such magnificent creative mythic storytelling, and I'd ask him about Celtic poetry.
For the menu, I’d go with a Scottish dinner, perhaps instead of haggis a good cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leeks, good and very easy), then salmon with neeps ‘n tatties (Queen Mary and Joan of Arc could discover a new taste sensation—potatoes—along with that old staple, turnips), with a nice array of pastries for dessert. A few wee sippies of whisky, and tea and coffee . . . a good meal with some very interesting guests.
Here's to Burns, and suppers, and a wee sippie of a good Scottish whisky on a brisk winter's night!