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Business and Economy

Celebrating Burns Night In The US? There's A Good Chance Your Haggis Came From Bangor, Maine

Flickr/Creative Commons

Today is the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, who’d be 262 years old. Traditionally, Burns-fanciers celebrate with a Burns Night supper, featuring Scotland’s legendary dish, haggis, a savory pudding made of organ meats stuffed into a sheep’s stomach.

But getting haggis in the U.S. can be a challenge. Not a lot of people know how to make it, and one of the key ingredients in Scottish recipes — sheep lung — is banned by the USDA.

One popular haggis maker, McKean’s in Glasgow, solved the problem by partnering with a Maine-based company, W.A, Bean, to have them make a version for Americans, minus the sheep lungs.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Sean Smith, a sixth generation butcher with W.A. Bean, on the company’s growing reputation as a dealer of legal haggis.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Smith: You’re not going to get a more official haggis in the United States than what you can buy through us, so, all the good stuff.

Mitchell: So what’s demand like for a dish of sheep liver and hearts, minus the lungs, of course, and various other things of mystery. Do people want this?

Absolutely. I mean, it is 1,000% a niche product. But over the years, we’ve had some great customers. When Pixar films had a movie, they contacted us through Disney. They were releasing a movie called “Brave,” which is a film based in Scotland. They needed some haggis for the premiere party, and they contacted us, and we sent them about 150 pounds, I remember. And the PGA Tour has been a great customer of ours. They contact us every other year when they’re hosting Ryder Cup events and when they have traditional Scottish dinners as well. People kind of know to come to us now. Wolfgang Puck, you know, other chefs have reached out to us. Celebrity chefs, I guess you could say.

I think that’s what chefs like to call nose-to-tail eating. And that seems to be a very popular trend in fine dining restaurants right now.

I get calls from chefs that are like, ‘Hey, how do you guys make your haggis?’ It’s great to get those calls, too. Because that tells me these chefs, these farmers are trying to utilize the entire creature. So again, that’s great as far as what I see in the food industry, a real grassroots approach. Every year we send haggis all over the country. Besides that, it’s a lot of heritage festivals that you’ll see, in the summer, you know, they’ll give us a call and get like 20 pounds here or 25 pounds there. That’s the type of stuff that we’re kind of losing this year, of course, with the pandemic.

With haggis being kind of a celebration food — it’s usually piped into the hall with great ceremony on a Burns Night — are sales down because of the pandemic?

Yes, I mean, we can definitely say that. That number is way down. But the people that are buying it this year are really, really appreciative. It’s a lot more on a personal level, I would say probably a lot more. People are having their Burns suppers at home and getting the smaller, two-pound haggis, as opposed to a 10-pound, 50-pound. So it’s still cricking along, you know, we’re still glad that we’re making it. But we definitely miss those celebrations.

Of course, haggis is just a small part of what your company makes. Has the pandemic had impacts on other areas as well? How’s the business doing?

Kind of a wash, I guess you could say, because again, we’re up as far as retail and in that aspect. But my wholesale numbers are down, because restaurants just aren’t at the capacity that they have been. But with that said, we’ve been working really closely with all of our local vendors, our local wholesale customers and accounts and just trying to click along with them as best as we can really.

So W.A. Bean I think of is kind of slightly old timey in some ways. Like I’ve seen the old-fashioned mincemeat for sale, the New England red snapper hot dogs, natural casings, sausages, etc. Was haggis just a natural fit for the company?

It is a delicacy. It’s a niche product. You mentioned mincemeat, or head cheese — for some people it might sound a little odd. But when McKean’s contacted us, I mean, I don’t think there was any type of delay in that. ‘Oh yeah, let’s do that.’ It was just an immediate — you’ve got a multigenerational company from across the pond reaching out to another multigenerational company, saying, ‘Hey, we want you to make our product because we believe in the quality that you put out already.’ So it’s something that we will do as long as we’re here. We will be making haggis.