Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Day For Poets and Lovers

Today Scots celebrate the birthday of Robert (or Rabbie) Burns, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Have you ever sung Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight of the new year? He wrote that.

Robert Burns was born January 25, 1759 near Ayr in a house built by his father. As an adult, Burns was known for casual love affairs (and lovechild or two). He dedicated poems to Mary Campbell, a woman he fell in love with, while another woman, Jean Armour (who he later married) was carrying his twins.

Burns worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns'), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns' most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea.

Burns died at the age of 37, and was buried the same day as his last child was born.

A Burns supper is a celebration of his life and poetry. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, and are sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day or Burns Night (Burns Nicht), although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.

The first suppers were held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by Robert Burns' friends on the anniversary of his death, July 21, In Memoriam and they have been a regular occurrence ever since. The first Burns club, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. They held the first Burns supper on what they thought was his birthday on January 29, 1802, but in 1803 discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was January 25, 1759, and since then suppers have been held on the 25th of January.

Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in Address to a Haggis), Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns' poetry. The dinner begins with the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the haggis is laid down. The host then recites the Address to a Haggis.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn,
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

Confused? Yeah, me, too. So here is a translation:

Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm

The groaning platter there you fill
Your buttocks like a distant hill
Your skewer would help to repair a mill
In time of need
While through your pores the juices emerge
Like amber beads

His knife having seen hard labour wipes
And cuts you up with great skill
Digging into your gushing insides bright
Like any ditch
And then oh what a glorious sight
Warm steaming, rich

Then spoon for spoon
They stretch and strive
Devil take the last man, on they drive
Until all their well swollen bellies
Are bent like drums
Then, the old gent most likely to rift (burp)
Be thanked, mumbles

Is there that over his French Ragout
Or olio that would sicken a pig
Or fricassee would make her vomit
With perfect disgust
Looks down with a sneering scornful opinion
On such a dinner

Poor devil, see him over his trash
As week as a withered rush (reed)
His spindle-shank a good whiplash
His clenched fist.the size of a nut.
Through a bloody flood and battle field to dash
Oh how unfit

But take note of the strong haggis fed Scot
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clasped in his large fist a blade
He'll make it whistle
And legs and arms and heads he will cut off
Like the tops of thistles

You powers who make mankind your care
And dish them out their meals
Old Scotland wants no watery food
That splashes in dishes
But if you wish her grateful prayer
Give her a haggis! 

At the end of the poem, a Scotch whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, then the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps). The dinner usually begins (before the haggis) with soup and ends with dessert.

Coffee and speeches usually end the meal.

When it comes to haggis, people typically either look at you confused or disgust. I went today to pick up whiskey to make my own vegan haggis and the clerk asked what I was using it for (I had mentioned I was cooking with it.) When I said haggis he stared a moment before informing me, yes, he had tried that. Once. And then gave a little shudder. So, what is haggis, you ask?

Take the liver, lungs & heart of a sheep and boil them. Mince the meats and mix with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. Take one properly cleaned sheep's stomach. Stuff the cleaned stomach with the prepared contents. Sew up the stomach (leaving enough room for expansion to avoid a large messy explosion) and boil. Serve and eat.

You may now shudder, just like the liquor store clerk. Believe me, I did, too, when I first learned about it. So now you are wondering what the heck am I doing making something like this! Well, hold on. I'm all about cruelty-free dining. Mine is vegan! You can find my recipe here. And, yes, it is delicious!

So what does love have to do with this (apologies to Tina Turner)? Nothing, actually. But it does have a great deal to do with another celebration, this time in Wales. Today the Welsh celebrate St. Dwynwen's Day.

St. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of lovers. She is also the patron saint of sick animals.

Dwynwen is believed to have been a daughter of King Brychan Brycheiniog, who lived in the 5th century. Dwynwen lived in Anglesey, and her name is still recalled in place names such as Llanddwyn and Porthddwyn.

There are several different versions of what happened:

- This version of the story is generally told to younger children, usually in primary school or nursery. It is generally considered the most appropriate for children.
Dwynwen was the beautiful daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, who was said to have had eleven sons and twenty-four daughters (although these figures vary greatly, to the extent of suggesting he had over fifty children). She met and fell madly in love with a man called Maelon, and he reciprocated her feelings. She asked her father if she could marry Maelon, but Brychan disliked Maelon and refused to give his permission. Maelon begged, as did Dwynwen, but Brychan would not relent and Maelon was forced to leave. Dwynwen was so upset that she ran into the forests. There, she met with an angel in a dream who granted her the position of the Saint of Love.

- Dwynwen did meet a man named Maelon, and they fell in love. However, Dwynwen disliked Maelon's attitude towards sleeping together, as she wished to keep her virtue until after marriage but he wanted them to sleep together. She told him this, and enraged Maelon so much that he attacked and raped her. Dwynwen fled to the woods, distraught. There an angel gave her a magic potion that cooled her love for Maelon (it in fact cooled it too much, as he was turned into a block of ice). It also gave her three wishes. Dwynwen wished that she would never marry, and that she would become the patron saint of lovers to console others through sadness and love. She used the last wish (although some sources say this was her first) to get Maelon unfrozen.

- Dwynwen fell in love with a prince called Maelon Dafodrill, but unfortunately her father had already arranged that she should marry someone else. Dwynwen was so upset that she could not marry Maelon that she begged God to make her forget him. After falling asleep, Dwynwen was visited by an angel, who appeared carrying a sweet potion designed to erase all memory of Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave three wishes to Dwynwen. Her first wish was that Maelon be thawed; her second that God meet the hopes and dreams of true lovers; and third, that she should never marry.

- Dwynwen fell in love with a prince called Maelon Dafodrill but her father (the king) had already arranged for her to marry another prince. As soon as Maelon found out he was angry and said never wanted to see Dwynwen again.Dwynwen cried all night and asked god to make her forget all about Maelon. In the morning Dwynwen was visited by an angel, who appeared carrying a sweet potion designed to erase all memory of Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave three wishes to Dwynwen. Her first wish was that Maelon be thawed; her second that God meet the hopes and dreams of true lovers; and third, that she should never marry.

Regardless of what really happened, Dwynwen became a nun, fulfilling her wish to never marry, and left for the island of Anglesey to build a Church. This is referred to as Llanddwynwen, literally meaning 'Church of Dwynwen'. She is there until she dies, in about AD 460. Her church at Llanddwyn became an important shrine during the Middle Ages. The holy well became a site of pilgrimage, at which the movement of fish within its waters was believed to indicate lovers' destinies. Visitors to the well believe that if the water boils while they are present, then love and good luck will surely follow.

Saint Dwynwen's day, Dydd Santes Dwynwen, is celebrated on January 25. Seen as something of a "Welsh Valentine's Day", from the 1960s it has increased in popularity as a day when cards are sent and events such as concerts or parties are held.

Wish your loved one 'dwi'n dy garu di ' (I love you).

And make something sweet. I made Red Hot Popcorn.

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