If it takes a strong man to wear a kilt, it must take a strong man with a strong stomach to stand up to the task Fort Wayne resident Shawn Gunst has taken on for the last six years.
Wearing a kilt, Gunst, 43, has presided over an annual haggis-eating contest.
For the tartan-challenged, that’s a contest in which the winner chows down the most of a traditional Scottish dish made from the ground-up heart, liver, kidney and (sometimes) intestines of a sheep stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach – all without benefit of knife, fork or hands.
“Yeah, it’s basically face down in the haggis,” says Gunst, who comes by his ken of things Scottish through the bloodline of his mother, whose maiden name was Campbell.
Gunst’s contest venue is the annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games sponsored by Chicago Scots, a group he joined after moving to Chicago in 1993 and started searching out his roots.
“I got more and more involved until I was on the executive committee. I talked about bringing back the haggis-eating, and like any volunteer group, when you bring up a good idea, you get stuck doing it,” he says.
This year there were 13 haggis contenders, all men. During last month’s festival they were each served a 1-pound portion of haggis, made by Winston’s Market, a Chicago specialty sausage purveyor.
“I really pile it on to make it very intimidating for them and serve much more than they’re wanting,” Gunst says. “It’s definitely an acquired taste. It looks more like cat food than anything else; it’s very pate-like in texture. I really can’t say it tastes like anything else. You definitely can’t say it tastes like chicken.”
Gunst, who works for Lincoln Financial in Fort Wayne, says the only thing worse than eating haggis is smelling it. “It has an aroma probably somewhere between – well, if you go out and smell some of the Dumpsters sitting out in this heat, it’s kind of an aroma like that,” he says.
Which leads to the next haggis-related festival event Gunst oversees – the haggis hurling contest.
No, no, he says quickly, it’s not what you think.
It’s a contest in which women take turns throwing a 1-pound ball of frozen haggis.
“They stand on half a whiskey barrel and throw it as far as they can while yelling it as loud as they can,” says Gunst who claims, with a straight face, that the event has its roots in the ancient custom of women on the sidelines of a battlefield literally throwing food to their men.
“This year’s winner threw the haggis over 100 feet,” he says, adding he enjoys taking the microphone and whipping the assembled crowd into a frenzy prior to both events.
As for the other kind of hurling, well, that might seem inevitable, but there was none among the competitors this year, Gunst reports.
The contest was won by a burly Highland Games athlete, who competes in events including sheaf (hay bale) and caber (telephone-pole-size log) tossing. He may have tossed those items, but he kept down his entire plate of haggis.
“The first year, we didn’t get the haggis out of the oven long enough ahead of time, and we threw beer on it to cool it down. We had so many guys throwing up that we didn’t do that again,” Gunst says.
“Now people seem to be getting better at holding their haggis.”
1 sheep stomach
1 sheep heart
1 sheep liver
1/2 pound fresh suet (kidney leaf fat is preferred)
3/4 cup stone-ground oatmeal
3 onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Some add dried or fresh thyme and rosemary to taste (about a half-teaspoon to a teaspoon of each)
3/4 cup stock (some substitute whiskey to taste)
Wash stomach well, rub with salt and rinse. Remove membranes and excess fat. Soak in cold, salted water for several hours.
Turn stomach inside out for stuffing.
Cover heart and liver with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Chop heart and coarsely grate liver. Toast oatmeal in a skillet on top of the stove, in a little fat, stirring frequently, until golden. Combine all ingredients and mix well.
Loosely pack mixture into stomach, about two-thirds full. Remember, oatmeal expands in cooking. Press any air out of stomach and tie securely. Lower into boiling water to cover. Simmer for 3 hours, uncovered, adding more water as needed to maintain water level. Prick stomach several times with a sharp needle when it begins to swell; this keeps the bag from bursting. Place on a hot platter, removing string, and serve.
Note: This dish often is ceremonially cut with a dagger making the sign of the cross and sliced or dished up with a spoon. It’s not necessary to eat the stomach itself. If a stomach can’t be found, some people stuff the filling into large sausage casings. Traditional accompaniments are mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps) – and good Scotch whiskey to wash it down.