This tale dates from the spring of 2000, inspired by a visit to Scotland by my globetrotting friend, John, and I in late 1999. I’ve returned several times since, most recently in March 2012. That first experience, though, opened my eyes to the big wide world, and quite literally changed my life. To this day, Scotland is a place I love as much as any other, and more than most.
WAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
“Will ya be havin’ the black pudding with that, love?”
Here at the Isles Inn, they ask tough questions. Then again, the good folks of Portree, Scotland are tough people. The innkeeper’s wife had awakened in the dark to prepare breakfast for John “Google Me” Vinson and your favorite photographer. And she was mighty gracious, especially considering it was entirely our fault that she was up so early on this bleak morning.
See, we were the only guests at the Isles Inn on November 1, 1999. This time of year is ultra-low season for Scottish tourism, and outside Portree, we saw few visitors, or locals, for that matter. There were plenty of sheep though, and the wobbly woolen flocks congregating along (and on) the one-track roads of Skye made no attempt to mask their umbrage at our off-season intrusion.
Upon shuffling into the breakfast staging area, John and I spent a minute or three struggling to decide exactly which empty table in the unoccupied room really would be best. After testing a few chairs and knocking over an arrangement of plastic tulips, we finally settled on a four-top by the window. There we slouched in half-eyed silence, watching pregnant black clouds zip across the sky. It felt too early to be awake, too dark for 8:30 am. Wind whistled under the heavy wood doors, through the chipped windowpane and directly into my hike-abused knees. Some would call the day miserable. But in Scotland, they just call it autumn.
Sleep deprived and cranky, I longed for a few months of hibernation. But our hostess’s smile (and a fresh pot of coffee) cheered the room. She stood patiently, blinking against the morning, as we labored over yet another weighty decision: breakfast option one or breakfast option two?
I ordered the heart-healthy “full breakfast:” scrambled eggs, sausage, slab of ham, toast, baked beans, etc. And as you heard, the hostess dutifully followed up by inviting me to enjoy the black pudding that often comes with a full breakfast. John, still suffering from his sins of the previous night, had only the porridge. It was a safe bet. They don’t offer black pudding with the porridge.
THE PROBLEM WITH JOHN
Portree (in Gaelic, Port Rìgh, or “King’s Port”; population 2,000) is the capital of Skye. We’d spent the previous evening celebrating Halloween (aye, the Scots dress up, too!).
Well, actually, we didn’t celebrate. John celebrated. John had an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience on Halloween 1999. I did not. Everyone was there. Except me.
“But why, Jim? Why did you miss out on all the fun while your so-called friend, John, was being treated like royalty and having the time of his life?”
Ah, well. Because I… after several consecutive nights of near sleeplessness (see below)… I was tired. Very, very tired.
“But why? Why were you so tired, Jim? Could John be to blame?”
I really don’t want to assign guilt, or mention names. But well, yes. It actually was John’s fault entirely. Having enjoyed a fine Halloween selection of after-dinner beers and whiskies, I felt compelled to return to the Inn early and grab a couple hours of sleep before John stumbled home and started in with the snoring.
Oh, dear me, yes indeed, the snoring. I’d never heard anything like this, except maybe on a farm, or in The Exorcist. Equal parts gurgling pig, slow leak, sinus infection and jackhammer, John’s snoring rattled the walls, windows and my brain with an impressive range of volume, tone and timbre. Serious stuff.
His wife, Karen, later explained her solution for John’s snoring. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “I just cuddle with him and the snoring stops. Works every time,” she said.
Very helpful. Thanks.
While tallying roughly nine hours of sleep during our first seven days in Scotland, I’d thought about suffocating my snorting pal, or maybe cracking him over the head with our ceremonial bottle of Highland Park whisky. Snuggling was not among the options I considered. Next time, I’ll know.
[NOTE: “Next time” was four years later, a visit to France. There was no snuggling on that trip, either. By then, the modern technology of nasal strips had reduced John’s snoring to an almost-tolerable level. - ed.]
The point is, I was exhausted. So I returned early to the Isles Inn in Portree, Scotland on Halloween night, 1999. John, on the other hand, stayed out and accidentally became the toast of the town. For one sparkling, perfect, magical moment, he was adopted by the locals. He danced and sang with holiday revelers, who gave him a tour of every pub in Portree (all five of them), bought his whisky and beer, and dubbed him “Sir John from Wisconsin.”
John called it an “experience of a lifetime.” We still talk about it today, this amazing, never-to-be-repeated-night-on-the-town that I didn’t have. We’ll never forget that wondrous night. For while John was out being regaled like a clan chieftain by the entire damn village of Portree, I (the village idiot, apparently) was back at the hotel, watching the British version of “Cops” on a 13-inch TV and trying to get some sleep.
I knew I had only a short time before John would be back, just a couple hours to get some rest. It might be days before I’d have another chance. But as anyone who’s ever been sleep-deprived knows, the more you think about sleep, the less likely you are to get any sleep. Sure enough, I spent the night reclining in my fashion-forward long johns, eating BBQ crisps (chips), watching our tiny TV with three channels, and not falling asleep.
Meanwhile, John was out having the time of his life. (Which, at that moment, was in far greater peril than he ever knew, or I would ever admit.) A few minutes after he got home, the drunkard’s snoring started all over again.
Next morning, while we waited for breakfast and the cold drafts sent shivers through my creaky kneebones (which are, of course, connected to my legbones), John told me all about his brilliant night. You should have seen him! It was as if he’d won the lottery and was announcing that he was going to keep the whole prize for himself.
Did I share in my friend’s happiness? Was I, who had nothing to celebrate (other than maybe my abnormally healthy blood-alcohol level), pleased to learn of John’s newfound fame amongst the good people of Portree? I, who was now more bleary and weary than I’d been the day before? Was I able to share in John’s joyous recollection of what certainly would be the best experience of our trip (or almost any trip), knowing that I missed it entirely?
What do you think?
BREAKFAST: THE MOST FRIGHTENING MEAL OF THE DAY
And that really insightful tale of woe leads, logically and seamlessly, back to the black pudding.
Even in Scotland, black pudding is something of a specialty. Like haggis, it’s a traditional food that most locals don’t eat. But unlike haggis, black pudding really is rather disgusting. Just blood (usually from pigs or cattle) cooked with some flour or other filler and a bit of spice, until it becomes thick enough to congeal upon cooling.
In the days of yore (in the 50s, I think), black pudding served as a source of protein, and might even have been considered a delicacy. Some people of questionable sense still seek it out. But these days, it seems more of a curiosity, or an object of suspicion, than a viable food. Sometimes, I think the Scots make it to frighten tourists.
I first encountered black pudding early in our trip, before we arrived on the Isle of Skye. When I ordered the “full breakfast,” our waitress asked if I wanted the black pudding as well. I pondered this for a moment. Pudding for breakfast? It seemed odd, but hey, why not? How bad can it be? Of course, it’s easy to be adventurous when you’re envisioning a bowl of choco-licious pudding, topped with whipped cream. Who wouldn’t want dessert with breakfast?
I received no such treat.
Instead, this cruel “local custom” was sinister and utterly unidentifiable. It looked like a flat English muffin made of charcoal jelly. I only thought it might be edible because it was on my plate, surrounded by other recognizable food items. The cook had nestled it carefully among my eggs and sausage, perhaps thinking I wouldn’t notice it there. But notice I did, for this malicious prowler was touching—and probably contaminating—the rest of my breakfast.
Having pegged this “pudding” as the most criminally misnamed food ever (with the very notable exception of “sweetbread”), I wondered, “What am I supposed to do with it?”
With hindsight, I now realize this was a trick question. In fact, you don’t do anything with black pudding. You shun it, ignore it, avert your eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. You do not befriend black pudding, or speak to it, or attempt to understand.
I sensed all this, intuited the danger. But I also was hungry, and so began to ponder the next step in my awkward relationship with this unwelcome guest. Before moving forward with breakfast, I wanted to know, “What is black pudding, really? A cancerous lung? Alien life form? A volcanic rock, perhaps? Insect patois?”
But no answers were forthcoming. Nodding toward the crusty coaster on my plate, I asked John if he knew what it was. I interpreted his shrug and disinterested mumble as, “No idea. Never seen anything like it. Could you pass the sugar? My porridge is a little bland.”
I should mention here that John is recognized internationally as a culinary daredevil. He’s got an iron stomach and no fear of unusual food. In fact, I think he likes it. So, being a generous guy, I offered my black pudding to him. But he declined the crun-chewy treat. I dared him. Challenged his manhood. Offered to buy his beers for the rest of the week. No, no, and no. Never before (and never since) had John refused to try a new dish, no matter how repulsive. But even he wanted no commerce with the unsightly biscuit.
I was on my own.
Facing this entirely new, and probably dangerous, form of breakfast food, I would have liked to conduct a thorough scientific investigation. I mean, if I were a scientist. But the only tools at my disposal were a fork, knife and miniature coffee spoon—hardly sufficient to reveal the pudding’s dark secrets. So for the time being, my foe would remain a mystery.
Wary of the foul puck, but driven by a growling stomach, I decided that any food which had not actually touched the black pudding was probably was safe to eat. Yes, that seemed reasonable. Problem solved, I attacked the toast, which was safely sequestered on its own plate. It was good, and for a moment, I felt happy. Then, just as I was about to dig into the eggs (very carefully), my subconscious raised a new, and very distressing question.
Subconscious: “Is it dead?”
Subconscious: “The pudding, dude. Is it dead? Or is it, you know, alive?”
I put down the fork, stirred my coffee furiously with the miniature spoon. There would be no eggs until this awful question had been answered. So I set to work, and before long, my keen mind had devised an experiment that would (a) determine if black pudding is living or dead, (b) establish my authority over this evil entity once and for all, and (c) allow me to finish breakfast in peace. I proceeded as follows.
1. Poke black pudding with fork, being careful not to anger it.
2. Pause and observe for response or movement.
3. Poke black pudding a second time, in a different location.
4. Listen for complaints, record any physical reaction.
5. Stab black pudding again, with enough force to break its crackly skin.
6. Jab fork violently into the gooey guts of the black pudding.
7. Wait, listen, and remain vigilant for a counter-attack from the pudding.
8. No response: black pudding most likely deceased.
Satisfied that black pudding is probably not a living creature, I finished breakfast with a relatively easy mind. Joy returned.
When we got up to leave, the black pudding remained, conspicuously untouched in the middle of my plate. Far as I know, it might still be sitting there. As we walked out, the waitress gave a look that said, “You’re barely a man, you.” But I didn’t care. If eating black pudding is the test of manhood, she’s right. Besides, I’m pretty sure she was looking at John.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
So when our hostess at the Isles Inn asked for a second time (with the sweet smile of a jaguar), “Will ya be havin’ the black pudding?” I knew the only appropriate answer: “No. No thanks.”
I’d been around enough to know that black pudding is no more pudding than potted meat is veal. It’s just a crusty death patty of congealed blood and flour. Under no circumstance would I ever choose to see it on my plate, or anywhere, for that matter.
Indeed, black pudding is a cruel misnomer, a dirty prank! And I wasn’t falling for it again. You only make that mistake once. Like the time I almost suffocated while trying to swallow a way-too-large large marble (I was pretty young at the time). I learned the hard way that marbles, like black pudding, are inedible. Those memories stay with you forever.
I doubt our hostess was surprised when declined the black pudding that cold morning in Portree, the day after Halloween, 1999. But who knows? Maybe she loves black pudding. Maybe she gets up at 4:00 every morning to serve her guests the finest black pudding in all the land. Maybe. I still wasn’t going to eat it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Scotland deeply, and I admire the Scots for many reasons, not least of which is their enduring culture. Through millennia of history and legend, they’ve fought off powerful Roman, Norse and English forces. Many came to Scotland, but none were able conquer its people or the spirit or this magical place.
I have a hunch it’s because the Scots are just tougher than everyone else. Their glorious, violent, and sometimes self-destructive history is certainly a testament. But in my opinion, Scotland’s indigenous cuisine is the truest evidence of her people’s extraordinary courage and strength.
Me? I’m not that brave. I spend as much time in Scotland as possible, but I stick with the fish & chips, stovies and Glenkinchie. And should you feel inclined to judge or criticize my avoidance of black pudding (Geh on, ye wee fairrry! Eat the black puddin’!), don’t bother. Unless you’ve faced—and eaten—that abominable goo on your breakfast plate, you’re just not qualified.