Haggis is known by name at least all around the world and it is widely touted and recognized as Scotland's national dish. Familiarity with haggis, however, very often ends with the name itself and it is probably more than fair to say that a wider majority of people actually have no real idea what haggis is, how it is made and what specific ingredients it contains. Elaborate and fanciful tales frequently abound of small furry animals, scampering through the heather, being mercilessly and relentlessly hunted by men with shotguns to decorate Scottish tables and feed Scottish families. Scots very often encourage these perceptions and secretly find great hilarity in the fact that such stories are often taken strictly at face value. It may serve as a surprise to many, however, to learn that nothing could be further from the truth and that haggis is actually an entirely man made product, comprised of a wide variety of ingredients, certain specifics of which are often a jealously guarded secret.
Haggis, neeps (rutabaga/Swede turnip) and tatties (potatoes) basic ingredients
Haggis is widely available in Scottish butcher's shops and supermarkets throughout the year. It is not, however, something you are likely to find gracing the average family's dinner table on a particularly regular basis. For many, eating haggis is actually a once a year event when it is popularly served in commemoration of Scotland's bard, Robert "Robbie or Rabbie" Burns, on or around January 25th each year (the anniversary of his birth) at formal Burns' Suppers or simply in individual households. It is most commonly served simply with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (rutabaga/Swede turnip) and very possibly a generous measure of whisky or two to wash it all down. It is also at this time of year that ex-pat Scots and those of Scottish descent in the USA and around the world look to celebrate their own heritage in similar fashion but for those in the United States seeking to sample and enjoy this traditional Scottish delicacy, there currently exists a very significant problem.
Decoratively presented haggis, tatties and neeps with an obligatory measure of Scotch whisky on the side
The USA Haggis Ban
It was in 1971 that the United States' Department of Agriculture imposed a blanket ban on the production, consumption and importing of Scottish haggis in the USA. At the time of writing (November 2015), it is a ban which remains in place. This regulation is very much a little known fact in Scotland itself (outwith the haggis production industry) and it was actually only in October 2015 that I became aware of it. I received an unsolicited e-mail asking me to sign a petition aimed at reversing the legislation. I thought the whole thing was a hoax until I did some simple investigations and found the ban to be very real. In order to even begin to understand why the banning order was put in place, however, it is essential to firstly dispel the haggis myths and look at the facts of haggis production and consumption.
What is in Haggis and How is it Made?
Different haggis producers have different recipes and the spice mix in particular is often a very closely guarded company/family secret. The basic ingredients however include the "pluck" of a lamb (its heart, liver and lungs), onions, oatmeal, beef fat and the spice mix. Spices commonly included are black pepper, nutmeg, allspice and coriander. The very informative video immediately below shows the mechanics of how these ingredients are combined and cooked by one of Scotland's top haggis producers, MacSweens, to form the finished product. It should be noted, though, that this is not a video which vegetarians or those with a squeamish capacity may wish to watch.
Sheep Lungs and the US Department of Agriculture
In 1971, the lungs from any form of livestock were banned as a foodstuff by the United States Department of Agriculture, due to the capacity for fluids to leak in to them during the slaughter process which could potentially be harmful to human health. As sheep lungs are largely deemed to be an indispensable ingredient in authentic Scottish haggis, imports of the real thing were consequently banned. Haggis was therefore a victim of the new law and not something which was specifically targeted. Despite a great many petitions and pleas in the interim, the ban remains in place and real Scottish haggis continues to be unavailable to people in the United States.
Since the ban has been put in place, haggis has of course been produced at a number of local levels in the United States, omitting sheep lungs from the ingredients list and therefore complying with the terms of the legislation. This would seem like a logical choice but comments made from those who have tasted haggis in Scotland and the amended version in the US suggest there is a notable difference, particularly in texture.
Haggis, tatties and neeps made in to a pie topped with puff pastry and served with snowpeas and baby corn
The Future of the US Haggis Ban
Will Americans be able to enjoy real haggis again any time soon?
The haggis ban was further complicated in 1989 by the ban on imports to the United States of European Union (including British) beef in the wake of the BSE crisis. Ironically, it is the lifting of this ban early in 2015 which may just help to pave the way for a relaxation of the haggis restrictions. Although far from being likely at present, significant representation is currently being made to the US at local Scottish Government and UK National Government levels to have the ban repealed. Should such a rethinking ultimately come to pass, it may be that people in the United States will once again be able to enjoy Scottish haggis served simply in its traditional form, or by adapting one of the haggis recipes featured in the images on this page.