The Omnivorous Mind

Our evolving relationship with food

Haggis on My Mind

A Scottish delicacy leads me to think about thinking about the world around us.

On a recent family holiday in Scotland, I took the opportunity to review how my own personal concept of "haggis" has evolved in my mind. Based on extensive research watching food and travel shows on TV, I first learned that haggis is a traditional Scottish (in)delicacy composed of a mixture of finely chopped sheep offal (heart, lungs, liver, etc.), oatmeal, onions, and other seasonings and binders, all stuffed into a sheep's stomach and boiled. After cooking, according to television, the haggis is served by kilted waiters in a grand dining room, who present it to the person sitting at the head of a long table. With a large knife, he stabs it ceremoniously right through the sheep stomach wall, exposing the grainy contents within, while reciting poetry by Robert Burns.

Now, I understood that haggis isn't necessarily only served as part of a "Burns Supper" celebration, but I did have the idea that a sheep's stomach was part of the recipe. Recently, my local butcher shop ran a haggis special. According to the native-born Scottish butcher who works there, the haggis was authentic, consisting of oats, offal, herbs, etc. I was disappointed, or relieved, however, to see that it did not come in a sheep's stomach. Rather, the loose filling was stuffed into a synthetic casing, which I presume was approximately the size of a small sheep's stomach. I was instructed to boil it for an hour, remove the casing, and then cut the filling into slices and fry them. I did as instructed. The haggis was OK; a little goes a long way.

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In Scotland, I had fried haggis served as part of a "Scottish breakfast" at a B&B, and with "neeps and tatties" (rutabaga and potatoes) as a lunch in a cafe in a small Highland town. I saw it sold in cans and as a side in restaurants. It slowly dawned on me that haggis does not necessarily have that much to do with sheep's stomachs, that what goes inside the stomach is really the haggis. Although this realization did not exactly blow my mind, it did cause me to think about my rethinking of haggis. The sheep stomach aspect, so prominent and compelling in its traditional preparation and presentation, was a bit hard to dislodge from my own personal concept of haggis, but the practical reality demonstrated that I should do so.

We humans are great at classifying, categorizing, and naming all the things in the world around us, including foods such as haggis. We understand the world by cognitively imposing order on it. Some other animals may also do this, but with the evolution of higher cognition and language, humans take it to a whole other level. Food is one of the most important things that gets classified, starting from deciding whether something is good or bad to eat. At the cultural level, food classification is related to nearly all other aspects of cultural life. We don't just eat that which is edible.

At the individual level, scientists have studied the different cognitive paths people follow to classify things (see my book The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food for a more complete discussion). For example, we can put an object in a certain class by comparing it (subconsciously in many cases) to a prototype, an idealized or official version of whatever is being classified. Conversely, a class of objects can be created or identified by grouping together several examples of an object that all share certain qualities. In day-to-day living, people make use of both prototype and exemplar classification on an ongoing basis. The two are not mutually exclusive.

My own initial category of haggis was very strongly prototype driven. It was presented to me via television in a certain context, with a certain characteristic (sheep's stomach) emphasized over its other attributes. With time and experience, and exposure to variants of haggis that did not include a sheep stomach, my concept changed. It became more exemplar driven, away from a specific prototype. What caused some disquiet in my mind was the sensing of the shift, the knowledge and feeling that my initial classification was wrong. Luckily, there was not that big price to pay for carrying around a slightly warped concept of haggis around in my head.

As I said, we all use prototype and exemplar classification, but some people may tend to favor one over the other, at least in some situations. Consider that among foodies, there are those who delight in trying variations on a theme, pushing the limits of how a dish can be conceptualized and reconfigured using new ingredients or cooking techniques. At the other extreme, there are foodies who seek only the most real or authentic representations of a food, all other versions, however tasty, being considered somehow unworthy or even fraudulent. Is a deep-dish pizza loaded with pineapples and ham a "real" pizza? Or is real pizza only thin crust, cooked quickly in a very hot oven (preferably wood-fired), with cheese and tomato and maybe a small amount of another topping? How a foodie answers questions like these might say something about his or her cognitive approach to classification. A non-foodie might just answer, "Who cares? If it tastes good, eat it."

The one area for which we may all lean towards prototype classification is for those foods that we became familiar with when we were children. I ate rice—boiled, white, short-grain, sticky, Japanese rice--almost every day as I grew up. For me, this will always be "rice." I have eaten all sorts of other kinds of rice as a adult (brown, basmati, arborio, sticky sweet black, etc), and intellectually I know they are as much rice as Japanese rice, but I also "know" deep down that they are not. They do not match the deep-seated prototype. Similarly, many urban Americans lament that they cannot find "real bagels" when they move to smaller cities. I have noticed that people's definition of "real bagel" tends to be that which could be bought reasonably close to home when they were growing up (which is not to say that there are not baked abominations out there posing as bagels).

My initial prototype for haggis formed relatively late in my cognitive development. It was therefore not too hard to adopt a softer, more inclusive, exemplar-based classificatory scheme in which to slot Scottish oat-based fillings. But I think it is interesting to introspect a little, and think about those foods for which our prototypes are strong and dominant and how they came to be that way.

 

John Allen is a neuroanthropologist working at the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

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