Haggis optional: Celebrate Robbie Burns Night in Rhinecliff

Vicki Farmer

Notorious rake, incurable Romantic, staunch patriot, champion of the proletariat and unapologetic hedonist, Scotland’s great national poet Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759. Each year fans of his voluminous work, as well as of Scots culture in general, gather throughout the globe on a night on or near that date to celebrate Burns Nicht (Night). In these parts, the Rhinecliff Hotel has long been the upholder of that tradition, and will host this year’s Robbie (a/k/a Rabbie) Burns Night this Friday, January 31, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The traditional Burns Supper is a highly structured affair involving ritual speeches, recitations, bagpipe and other music, plenty of toasts involving whiskey and…that monument to Scots frugality, that dreaded culinary concoction that uses up all the parts of a sheep that we don’t really want to think about without imbibing plenty of single malt first, the haggis. Although folks in Scotland like to twit American tourists with tales of the haggis as a small animal with legs shorter on one side than the other so that it doesn’t fall off the Highland mountainsides (perhaps a relative of our native Rocky Mountain jackalope), the real thing is a savory pudding made of oatmeal, suet, minced mutton offal, onion and seasonings, boiled to perfection inside a sheep’s stomach.

The haggis is allegedly more delicious than its description, but its dubious ingredients have undoubtedly made many a would-be Burns Nicht celebrant shrink back from the duty of actually tasting one. To accommodate us haggis wusses, the Rhinecliff therefore prepares a menu that consists of traditional Scottish dishes like cock-a-leekie soup, “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes mashed together) and lemon curd shortbread, but substitutes a Highland beef stew for what Burns called the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race.” Whew.

The ceremonies will still include the requisite Parade or Piping-in of the Haggis, along with the traditional Selkirk Grace, the Toast of the Lassies and the Lassies’ Response for a bit of good-natured battle-of-the-sexes humor. Master piper Jeremy Freeman will play the bagpipes; storyteller Jonathan Kruk will relate some incidents from the life of Burns; swordsman Neil Roberts will buckle some swash. Participants are encouraged to bring songs, poems and stories by, about and in the spirit of the Bard of Ayrshire. And at the end, everybody joins in singing Auld Lang Syne, in a context where it makes a lot more sense than on New Year’s Eve.

Skullsplitter Ale will be on tap, and whiskeys from Tuthilltown Spirits will be available for tasting. The cost of dinner is $35.95 plus tax and gratuity; and if you want to indulge freely in Highland spirits without falling off the mountainside on the way home, the Rhinecliff offers a special room rate of $149 plus taxes for guests of Burns Night. This event usually sells out, so make your reservations now at (845) 876-0590, [email protected] or www.therhinecliff.com.

Traditional Scottish Robbie Burns Dinner, Friday, January 31, 6:30 p.m., the Rhinecliff Hotel, 4 Grinnell Street, Rhinecliff; (845) 876-0590, [email protected], www.therhinecliff.com. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s DineHudsonValley.com or HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.

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