We confess: This week's Burning Question reached us about, oh, eight months ago.
Good idea, we thought at the time--but then we deleted it from our in-box by mistake. Fortunately, our editor kept a backup copy. Too bad he sent it the day our laptop fell from a second-story window, bounced off a garage roof and crashed onto a street directly in the path of a school bus. (It was an accident.) Then we misplaced the hard copy he forwarded to our home.
Yet our commitment to the story was so great that it took only a brief, obscene verbal reminder from our editor to push this question to the top of the list.
Anyway, the Burning Question crew would never deliberately suppress a story idea, particularly one of such importance. Who hasn't pondered, at some point, the relative merits of haggis, scrapple and head cheese?
We just needed a little help to answer the question.
James Neel, chef-owner of Tramontana and Bistro Latino, once admitted, "If you want to be a chef, you gotta try everything." So--heh, heh--we invited several of the city's top restaurant professionals to assist with our research.
Joining us to sample these obscure dishes were Neel; Nick Badovinus of Cuba Libre and Fireside (along with toddler Nick Jr.); Joel Harloff of the Melrose Hotel's mainstays Landmark and Library Bar; Marie Grove, owner of Stolik; Patti Collins, who manages catering operations for Cookworks; Kathy Hamilton from Dallas VIP Events & Entertainment; Amity Thomas, a PR hack with the Martha Tiller Co.; and a mystery celebrity guest.
Can't tell you who.
The mystery celebrity guest inquired about the availability of ...um...receptacles. Others were a little bit frightened by the gruel, suet and organ meat theme as well. When Harloff confidently announced, "I think I've had just about everything, and I don't remember any major issues," Neel countered with a quick "you might have them today."
Brian C. Luscher of The Grape agreed to prepare the items and host the meal. He cooked up scrapple and head cheese from scratch, while we purchased the haggis from an undisclosed source, after receiving assurances the stuff contained no chopped lung.
Haggis, you'll recall, is a traditional Scottish dish (that alone should frighten anyone) consisting of innards and oatmeal boiled inside a sheep's stomach. So fond is this race of groundskeepers and golf pros of the stuff that their most cultured member, poet Robert Burns, penned a lengthy ode to haggis. Here's an excerpt:
His knife see rustic Labour dight
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Any mention of reeking entrails sorta makes a person hungry, don't it?
The Pennsylvania Dutch created scrapple by combining cornmeal mush with scraps of leftover pig and frying the mess in lard or butter. Head cheese is a more complicated dish. First one must dislodge meat from a pig's head, render the more gelatinous remains and then mix the ingredients into a nasty meat Jell-O loaf.
None of this stuff appears on The Grape's menu, by the way.
We purchased a few bottles of scotch for the event. No one expressed interest in a drink (except us, of course) until Luscher's staff served up the first dish, at which point Hamilton rushed to the bar.
"I'm trying to be brave," she explained.
The head cheese was visually interesting, a mosaic of colors and textures, with a flavor reminiscent of roast beef. We had avoided this stuff on last summer's visit to Eastern Europe for the "worst cuisine" story (why do people ask us these things?). Luscher's version, however, was firm, meaty and potently spiced. The recipe called for handfuls of sage, pepper and parsley--all meant to disguise the taste of pig's head.
"The flavors were good," announced Collins, who succumbed to the lure of scotch during the head cheese service. We nudged her for the inevitable "but."
"I'm not saying it."
Most panel members likewise praised the taste, but couldn't stomach the gummy mouth feel. "It's edible," Neel admitted, "but I don't think I'd run out to the store and buy any."
Scrapple, by comparison, generated quite a bit of enthusiasm. "This is like a liver polenta," Badovinus exclaimed. "It's right on." Pan-fried to a golden brown, the dish offered some outer crunch. Harloff wolfed down his portion. The mystery celebrity guest offered to trade his/her (no hints from us) remaining head cheese for more scrapple. Neel and Hamilton debated spiking the plate with eggs and Tabasco.
"I could see a few eggs on this," Luscher said with a nod. "But I agree with Nick"--Badovinus considered scrapple the perfect after-the-bars-close option--"it's a 3:30-in-the-morning meal with sloppy eggs."
As platefuls of haggis arrived at the table, Thomas, Harloff and Neel reached for the scotch bottle.
Neel tried the haggis first, winced a bit and said, "I think one bite will do me." Other panelists chuckled, but he remained adamant. "Wait till you have your first bite--that's what you'll think."
Or worse. Granted, we ordered a frozen haggis rather than asking Luscher to spend his time stuffing oats into an old stomach, but we can't imagine the fresh version tasting like anything other than mushy, musty oatmeal peppered with indescribable chunks. "It was all fun up until this dish," Harloff moaned. We wondered aloud whether residents of the misty moors distilled scotch to drown the haggis or created haggis because they already had scotch to erase its taste. Other panelists twisted their faces into that look George W. gets when reporters toss him an unscripted question with multisyllabic words.
"I've had a few drinks, and the taste is still there," Neel complained.
Only two people managed more than one bite: Grove, who admitted to acquiring the taste for haggis but refused our plate when we pushed it in her direction, and Badovinus' toddler, Nick Jr. The youngest panel member began scooping up handfuls of the vile porridge and giggling happily.
His father, meanwhile, joined the rest of the group. "I'll certainly remember the taste," Badovinus said, "but I won't crave it." Still, he pointed out that such peasant dishes reflected an era when struggling farmers used every bit of an animal, nose to tail.
"If I were really hungry and really cold, I guarantee it would've tasted different."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Clearly. And that's probably the best response to this week's Burning Question. All three dishes emerged from necessity. Luscher followed traditional recipes for scrapple and head cheese. "A lot of recipes have been gentrified now," he pointed out. In other words, as a culture accumulates a modicum of wealth, people opt for better cuts of meat. Nowadays, haggis is fare for special occasions or dares. Only old-timers and Eastern Europeans render head cheese. And most modern versions of scrapple call for pork shoulder rather than scraps and innards.
But, Luscher adds, "there's nothing in there [the traditional recipes] I wouldn't eat."
Our final answer, however, comes from young Amity Thomas. At the end of the meal, Luscher handed out homemade cookies, and we began asking for reactions to the meal.
Her response: "I loved the oatmeal cookies."