In 2006, Neil and Morag Grassie family moved from Scotland to Westport. They lived there for a few years, eventually opting for more space and a wee bit of a rural lifestyle in Redding.
Soon after arriving in Westport, they started their own version of the long-established, worldwide tradition of celebrating Robert Burns’ birthday: January 25.
“It was a great excuse to have a party during the post-holiday lull, when everyone is feeling a bit down,” Morag says.
Burns suppers range from a few men sitting around the fire reading poetry — “very boring,” Morag admits — to the other extreme: “full revelry and Scottish dancing.”
Most of the Grassies’ events include dancing, plus lively speeches and performances of poetry and song.
Burns suppers everywhere feature “the ceremonial piping in of the haggis” by a piper and bagpipes; the “Address to a Haggis” (a lively Burns poem about the virtues of haggis-eating), and of course, eating haggis.
Never had haggis? Here’s what you’re missing: a savory pudding of a sheep’s or calf’s offal, suet, oatmeal and seasoning, boiled in a bag.
The Grassies’ had a smae challenge when they first arrived in the States: it’s illegal to import haggis. (“The logic of this still defeats the intelligent mind,” Morag laments.)
After much sourcing and testing, they found a butcher in Maine who makes an authentic haggis under license from a butcher in Glasgow — the Grassies’ home city.
There are 3 other producers in the US, Morag reports — in New Jersey, Florida and Texas — but “none are a patch in the beans meat haggis from Maine.” Whatever that means.
This was the 5th year for the Grassie Burns supper. Many friends attend, but only 3 have made it to every one. All are from Westport: David and Sherry Jonas, and Roy Marmelo.
Roy’s wife Maite missed one. Jonathan Ewert is another active Westport participant.
“The biggest challenge for Neil and me is clearing out the house so we can get all 44 people seated, with room for the piper to move around, and then serve the 5-course dinner,” Morag says.
She cooks it from scratch, with help from friends who “peel potatoes and turnips for the traditional haggis, neeps and tatties course.” Of course.
Contributors this year included Sherry Jonas, with Heather Lyons (a Westporter originally from Glasgow) and Jane Morrison (a Westporter from, of all places, England) preparing shortbread for dessert.
This year’s program promised — right there, between one course of haggis, neeps and tatties, and another of poached Scottish salmon, wild race and salad — “intercourse entertainment.”
I can’t believe I missed that!
Little bits of Burns poetry are interwoven throughout the night. “You’ll be surprised how many you know,” Morag says.
There are speeches about poems like “Immortal Memory” (it tells a little about his 13 children, many of whom were illegitimate and/or called Margaret). Guests also talk about his socializing and death at age 37 (the two are linked).
Poetry, bagpipes, dancing and haggis. It doesn’t get any better than that.