Sunday, February 1, 2009

Formal High Table : Burns Night

Since I am somewhat allergic to formal events I had been avoiding the high table dinners at Somerville College. However, a few people recommended that I might want to go to this week because it was something a bit out of the ordinary.

This week was a celebration of Burns Night – the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (he wrote Auld Lang Syne among other things). In fact, this year would be his 250th birthday. Although the actual holiday is January 25th, our college celebrated it on Tuesday the 27th , as Tuesday is the day we usually have high table dinners.

As is typical for high table dinners, there are drinks before dinner in the senior common room. I went with the sherry, which was decent, although not exceptional (Note to self: get invited to the filthy rich colleges for dinner more often so I can get some of that 80 year old wine).

The fellows walk into the great hall led by a bagpiper and everyone stands until the latin grace is said by the Principal of the College. The undergrads were dressed very well, perhaps better than most the faculty. A few were even in black tie. As usual, the dopey American physicist (that would be me) was underdressed. I was wearing a tweed jacket a white shirt and to quote my ex-girlfriend “those pants that you think are nice, but they aren’t”. I had asked whether I needed a tie, and the response was “Well, you can get away without”, so I went without – then realized this was a mistake. The phrase “you can get away without” might have meant, “well, you might get away without, but I would never dream of going without a tie”. There was only one other tieless guy in the room of over a hundred – a mathematician.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Somerville is considered “modern” because we do not eat in academic robes. But this has the disadvantage, that people actually see what you are wearing. All told, I think I am happy we do not eat in robes, as I cannot imagine how I could possibly not get the sleeves in my soup.

Many of the people who showed up for this dinner were Scottish. By the grace of the seating chart (not sure who makes it up) I was placed next to a Scottish woman (who was actually a guest of said tieless mathematician who sat across from me). She explained to me that the Scotts Scots around would probably go to five or six different Burns Night celebrations each year. She had two to go to just that evening.

This web site has a pretty good description of the traditional Burns Night supper and all the traditions. The highlight, without doubt, is the Addressing of the Haggis. An enormous Haggis is brought into the great hall with much fanfare (led by the bagpiper again), and placed on the table. The Burns poem “Address to a Haggis” is read as if speaking to the Haggis, a knife is plunged into the object, and a toast is made with Scottish whiskey (the Scotts Scots woman next to me was mortified that it was a blend rather than a single malt Scotch).

The addressing of the Haggis was done by one of the college fellows who is extremely Scottish and has a very hard Glaswegian accent. I then realized that in normal conversation she works very hard to speak in an understandable way, but her natural Glaswegian is almost incomprehensible. Of course, Burns’ poem itself is not so easy to understand to begin with. In fact, one really needs a translation from Scottish to English (one is given here). Even though many in the room (including me) had no idea what she was saying, the address was given with great fanfare and great Scottish gusto.

Dinner itself was, of course, Haggis, along with the traditional neeps and tatties. Tatties, of course are just mashed potatoes. Neeps are mashed swede (rutabaga or yellow turnip) which tastes half way in between a potato and a squash.

I admit that I feared that Haggis. I’d only eaten Haggis once, years ago when I was up in Scotland – and it was pretty awful – tasted too much like liver. But this Haggis was actually pretty good (and served without the sheep's stomach) – pretty much like a decent meatloaf– which I guess is more or less what it is (although the “loaf” is traditionally oats, as compared to usual loaf). They also had vegetarian Haggis (soy loaf, I guess) for those who preferred. I didn’t try that, but I’m told it wasn’t half bad. Dessert was oatmeal and honey ice cream. Very tasty, but by this time in the meal, something as heavy as oatmeal didn’t sound like a very good idea.

Of course after dinner the “adults” return to the senior common room for more wine, fruit, chocolate, coffee, tea and socializing. I stuck around for a bit, but couldn’t stay too late as I had homeworks to grade for my students by the next day.


Marianne said...

Just for the record, the pants in question are old black cotton chinos. And what I actually said was "you think those are dress pants but they aren't." But hey, now you are Britain's fashion problem!

Steve said...

They are black cotton dockers, but they are completely new, and they were pressed professionally so they looked better than "normal" (OK, I admit, "normal" ain't so good).

Marianne said...

I'm sure you looked plenty nice ;-)

Ben from Hoboken said...

Steve, I can honestly say that your description of haggis is the first time anyone has managed to make it sound appetizing. But above and beyond the haggis, sounds like life amongst the dons is not so bad (tough, a blend rather than a single malt).