Professor Caroline McCraken-Flesher on Robert Burns and the Cultural Politics of Food

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Blog author: Hannah Pyle

On the 24th of October 2019 the centre had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Caroline McCraken-Flesher from the University of Wyoming to talk on ‘Robert Burns and the Cultural Politics of Food’. As the glint of the ever-beautiful autumnal Glasgow sun faded out through the Gloag room windows, Dr Ronnie Young introduced Professor McCraken-Flesher: with interests in the works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and – of course – Robert Burns, Prof McCraken-Flesher has also produced works on the importance of science fiction, particularly within Scotland, and likewise pushes for the importance of the medical humanities. Most notably with her work, The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke and Hare Murders (2011) which recounts the infamous case of Burke & Hare in late nineteenth century Edinburgh. Prof McCraken-Flesher is also a convenor for the International Association for Studies in Scottish Literature and is helping to steer the up-coming major conference – The 3rd World Congress of Scottish Literature – which is to be held in Prague in the summer of 2020.

Prof McCraken-Flesher joked that it felt like the Scottish equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle by giving a talk on Burns at the University of Glasgow, which is also the home for the Centre for Robert Burns. But instead of diving straight into eating up the food of Burns, she began by bringing attention to Hugh MacDiarmid. It is Hugh MacDiarmid’s questioning of Burns in 1934 and then again in 1959 that frames Burns, and the familiar scene of the Burns supper. MacDiarmid explored the idea of the Burns supper and its obsession with traditions and ritual. We heard of how MacDiarmid wishd to fully digest the problem of Burns and his intestinal nature: how, for MacDiarmid, something aggravates and is overwhelmed by the Burns supper tradition, and yet it is long lasting?

Prof McCraken-Flesher brought attention to scholarly ideas surrounding how ‘food metamorphosises our lives’, and how the Burns supper template explores this very idea. MacDiarmid only appears to express disgust at the Burns supper construction, and likewise, our attention was brought to a major food that plays a major role within this dining experience: the haggis. Prof McCraken-Flesher directed the discussion on to the haggis question: what is ‘the unexpected energy of Haggis’, and later describing it as a kind of ‘Franken-food’. It is this particular food – this product – and its passage through Burns which Prof McCraken-Flesher examined as the central topic of the talk.

We then had our attention drawn to the idea of Scottish identity – ‘Scottish-ness’ – depicted throughout popular culture. Prof McCraken-Flesher drew attention to the rising use of Gifs which portray Scottishness, such as those of the character ‘Groundskeeper Willie’ from the Simpsons. In this same way, we are asked to think about how Burns used popular culture to popularly re-conceptualise the haggis: how exactly did Burns recreate the Haggis? How did the taste for Haggis spread throughout literature and poetry and culture?

Prof McCraken-Flesher began by highlighting current critical thought on the conceptualisation of food; how food disturbs the body, and the mouth is perceived as a transitory space. Likewise, by thinking of eating and dining in terms of an established discourse: gastronomy. A discourse which Hugh MacDiarmid is engaging with within Burns and the Burns supper tradition. In one way, highlighting the community surrounding this tradition – and the figure of Burns himself – and yet, tries to proclaim against this vision of a stereotypical Scottish identity located within it: a ‘ventriloquized’ figure, and experience. In other words, this is the way in which Scotland is experienced as ‘a Haggis signifier’. The key, and most famous example, being Burns’s poem ‘To a Haggis’, recited at every Burns Supper across the globe.  

Prof McCraken-Flesher drew our attention to this community-building aspect of the haggis. Not only through the reciting of the poem, but through the literal chopping up, spreading out and sharing of the food as part of the ceremony. Indeed, it is this ritual which engages with the idea of an imagined, collective community. A collected community that questions our idea of society, how it has been divided and how it has evolved. For example, Prof McCraken-Flesher described how prior to the installation of Haggis as a Scottish symbol, it was previously known throughout the 15th century as a traditional English dish. In contrast, the dish that was most associated to the Scots within the 18th century was porridge, also known during this time as ‘porridge eaters’. Prof McCraken-Flesher highlighted that even during the 19th century, haggis was not so prominent a dish within the Burns Supper template that we have now come to know. In 1859, there are only 66 instances of haggis being ate out of the recorded 800 dinners. The haggis in these examples is associated to the women who prepared it and who were addressed with thanks within the speeches of the night.

In the conclusion to the talk, Prof McCraken-Flesher addressed this idea of invoking a community through the many addresses of the evening. An address making the listeners expected ‘answer-ers’. These addresses and answers echo down the line of history, filled with its prescribed actions of cooking, sharing, eating, discussing, memorialising. The actions that Hugh MacDiarmid critiqued, that he was so familiar with, the same actions fulfilling the idea of Scottishness to this day. However, Prof McCraken-Flesher drew our attention to what Burns himself would have been eating: Burns’s wife stated that Burns hated such puddings as the haggis.

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