Guide to Scottish cuisine: Are you going to eat that?
Jessica, my first real friend from halls, who is by far the most poised, sophisticated of us, still glowing from her gap year weeks after returning to Blighty, is asking for my blood pudding. I’ve been in the United Kingdom for less than a week, and I am speechless. It’s the early noughties, and I’m unaware that black pudding functions as anything more than a decoration, a vestige of the Dark Ages that only really exists for tourists to ogle. Thankfully, the power of speech is not needed for tipping a greasy slab of congealed blood onto my new friend’s breakfast plate. She devours it in two.
This, my initiation into the world of sub-mainstream meats, is probably similar to those which most metropolitan young people will have faced in recent years, following an astronomical boom in the popularity of offal. Championed in the west by London’s Fergus Henderson, San Francisco’s Chris Cosentino, or New York’s David Chiang, depending on who you ask, some form of the once-scrap-meat is now close to requisite in any reputable restaurant. Not to put too fine a point on it, offal — an animal’s organ meats or entrails — is gross and delicious. That’s sort of on the proverbial label. Despite its popularity, particularly among young food bloggers and cultural adrenaline junkies, it’s not surprising that some might still hesitate before diving into a steaming bowl of tripe.
But such trepidation was not the case when The Insider’s Guide to Scotland, a Japanese tourism book published in Edinburgh by Luath Press, advised tourists to avoid “weird” sausages, among other practical tips like not calling a ‘kilt’ a ’skirt’, not staying sober in the pub, and not referring to the locals as ‘English’. Following the book’s publication, the internet did what it tends to do when you whisk race into an otherwise wholly fluff piece: it blew up, just a bit. Readers’ main qualm? Those ‘weird’ sausages can be found in some form or another in chain supermarkets across Britain, and consist of the same basic ingredients as in ‘bulk’ sausage (sausage without casing) worldwide. Indeed, the book’s apparent jab at a relatively mainstream food item ruffled a few feathers.
And rightly so. The British bunging food is the one of easiest jokes there is. In my native San Francisco, it is consistently the first comment strangers make, with equal parts faux and earnest sympathy, and hefty self-satisfaction. But another piece of low-hanging fruit? Japanese tourism habits. We in the west can’t seem to get enough of them. And fundamentally, the media’s overwhelming coverage of this story says more about ourselves and our hot buttons than it does of Scottish meat’s global PR. We are alarmed at how we alarm people. Which is, in itself, a bit alarming.
This kind of meta-Orientalism distracts from a much more accessible topic, and one that is fundamentally the propagator of this story’s vast coverage: meat. The rise of (I shudder to write it) ‘foodie’ culture (I’m so sorry) makes accepted food trepidation a carpet that’s constantly being pulled from under even the more daring of us. Am I still allowed to steer clear of horse-meat? Is the bacon-in-everything trend – the shorthand for ‘bro-ish ‘hedonism – still something I get internet cred for touting? Will I be ahead of the curve if I undertake exposure therapy for fish heads just in time for winter?
Travel media rarely pays proper respect to individual limits, and the articles about the Insider’s Guide rang more of a reinforcement of common sense than of throwing Scotland shade. If meat looks dodgy, maybe don’t eat it. Which isn’t to say that Japanese food, or its native consumers, are inherently tame. On the contrary, and in an interesting parallel, my own food limits include uni, raw sea urchin popular in Japan, and the fried chicken skin popular in diaspora yakitori bars.
I come down on two sides of the whole culture vs curiosity dynamic. Despite global press about America’s obesity epidemic, it’s easy to underestimate the casual abundance of high-calorie food that can be found across the US. This is a land of huevos rancheros on breakfast menus, of whole deep-fried cheesecake cropping up north of the Mason Dixie Line, and any number of stereotypes that sadly (and deliciously) tend to be grounded in reality. So as a California native, I took some comfort in the seemingly innocent battered sausage, haggis pizza, even warmed Mars Bar (to be clear, warmed by a deep fat fryer). I also think haggis treats hangovers better than codeine.
That Scotland’s culinary notoriety, substantiated by very real obesity statistics didn’t shock me isn’t something to brag about. Having the common sense to avoid demonstrably unhealthy food probably is. So kudos, Luath. When stripped of the foodie code, overwrought cultural relativism, and meat-worship, travel tips should, probably, look something like what you published.
That said, when Jessica got married a few months ago, she spit-roast a hog. I went for the flank.Tagged in: blood pudding, kilt, meat, offal, Scotland, The Insider’s Guide to Scotland
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