I knew that there was more than one holiday that comes to New Jersey in the bitter cold of January. Martin Luther King day doesn't yet have any food traditions associated with it and Chinese New Year is so heavily discussed among food enthusiasts that it doesn't really need much further mention.* What's left is Burns Night (on January 25 in honor Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland) and its classic food: haggis.
Haggis is a large sausage of organ meat and oatmeal, traditionally boiled in a sheep's stomach. No other food eaten in the Western World frightens people in the way haggis does. Sure, there are lots of other foods that people find disgusting—indeed, many find their way onto menus of places that I myself have enthusiastically recommended right here—but haggis has an aura of vileness around it that is utterly unequaled. I wanted to say that haggis is no more revolting than scrapple, but it didn't take long for me to realize that comforted nobody.
Of course, its reputation made me want to have it on Burns Night even more. The holiday meal calls for a serving of haggis with sides of potatoes and turnips. And I know; turnips are another "everybody hates them" sort of food. All this made finding haggis even more of a problem. A call to a well-known Scottish restaurant didn't quite work out the way I wanted it to. When the guy who answered the phone suggested I have a seafood pasta instead, I cried a few quiet tears. I had better luck at the Argyle—they offer Burns dinners of haggis, tatties (mashed potatoes), and neeps (turnips) every Friday and Saturday in January. When I asked on the phone how much a meal cost, I was told, "Two pounds for twenty-five dollars." Sadly, it was too late to drive to Kearny that same day just because I found a two-pound order of steaming haggis to be intriguing.
I have to confess that my experience with haggis is a bit less than extensive. I've had the battered and fried version maybe three times at chip shops in Britain and a grilled haggis sandwich exactly once. Never have I tried what you see in online videos and TV documentaries: a crumbly mix of grainy meat presented by a guy in a kilt who's being followed by bagpipers. But there's a time for everything and the time for haggis was coming upon me quickly.
Despite the scary-cold weather, I hopped into my car and headed over to Kearny—a place that seems to be the Scottish home turf here. In fact, Scottish shops and restaurants in other parts of the state describe themselves as "...of Kearny." It seemed like the place to go. When I got there though, I found something completely different: a very nice, clean, Brazilian/Portuguese neighborhood with a couple of old, beaten Scottish storefronts mixed in. No wonder seafood pasta had become popular!
I took a seat at the Argyle and started eavesdropping on the other customers. All were talking haggis and none were ordering it. When the guy at the table behind me call it a "national joke," I could feel my blood pressure going up sharply. Looking around in a vain attempt to gain my composure, I noticed that the place was too Scottish to actually be Scottish. There were prints of guys in kilts playing bagpipes and portraits of Robert Burns. No football teams, no adverts for fizzy drinks; it was a dream of Scotland on LSD.
I ordered haggis and was served one of the most startling meals imaginable. On my plate was the sort of fried haggis that one gets in chip shops pretty much anywhere north of Manchester and ramekins of mashed turnips and potatoes. All were quite good, and the haggis itself was terrific, but it wasn't what I wanted.
Painfully passing one nice looking Portuguese joint after another, I strolled down to Stewarts of Kearny. What looked like a small butcher at first glance turned out to be the place. The price board listed items like "black pudding" and, of course, "haggis." I was euphoric. When the woman behind the counter brought out a real haggis, I took a couple of deep breaths and pulled out my credit card. Here was a place where the sheep was appreciated! I drove home happily thinking about future purchases of black pudding, sausages, and maybe even a pre-made Scotch egg for my wife.
Back in the kitchen, I simmered the haggis, fixed up some mashed potatoes and turnips, and celebrated Burns Night the right way.
My haggis from Stewart's was nothing at all like chip shop fare. Instead, it was a peppery pate that even my wife loved. Had haggis been French or Italian it would be considered a delicacy, but since its Scottish it fails to earn that reputation—and that's our loss.
* For those of you who do need a Chinese New Year recommendation, I suggest my old favorite; King's Village on Route 27 in Edison. They offer a terrific holiday dumpling feast.
212 Kearny Avenue, Kearny NJ 07032 (map)
Tues. through Sat., 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.