For 77 years, the Chinese Acacia Club has created a space for Chinese American Masons, a historically underrepresented group.
It may be the star of the meal, but even at the yearly Masonic Burns Supper at Oakland’s Academia Lodge № 847, where members gather to remember the legendary poet, Scottish national hero, and proud Freemason Robert Burns, master Ben Brookshire admits that there are some who approach the haggis with a bit of skepticism. “Most people treat it like a dare,” he says of the infamous dish.
Haggis aside, the members of Academia № 847 (led by the late Arthur Porter) have wholeheartedly embraced Burns Night as a special date on the fraternal calendar. Burns, who was raised in 1781 in St. David’s № 174 in Tarbolton, in South Ayrshire, Scotland, is recognized by Scots around the world on January 25 each year with a feast that bears a resemblance to a Masonic festive board. From the ritual piercing of the haggis to recitations of classic Burns songs and poems like “A Red, Red Rose” and “Auld Lang Syne,” the classic dinner program follows a well-worn itinerary. Here, Brookshire explains how the lodge recognizes the poet laureate of the lodge.
Piping in the Guests
Traditionally, attendees are welcomed into the event with music from a bagpiper.
“We do have a piper, but the tradition at Academia is that it’s always kind of a disaster,” Brookshire says with a laugh. “He’s always late, or sick, or something else is wrong. You know how people say, ‘What if it rains?’ Our joke is, ‘What if something goes wrong with the piper? Oh, it will.’”
The Selkirk Grace
The event host welcomes and introduces guests and reads a short Scots prayer to usher in the meal.
“Acting as the chairman of the Burns Night is sacred for me. I’m proud of being master of the lodge, of being a 32nd degree, but one of the things I’m most proud of is being chairman of the dinner.”
Address to a Haggis
The haggis, the centerpiece of the meal, is marched in as special guest recites the poem “Address to a Haggis.”
“Finding haggis is tricky. For years, I’d drive up to Dixon to the legendary Alex Henderson of the Scottish Meat Pie Company, before he passed away. He used to include the ‘full tuck.’ That’s part of the sheep’s lung. Anyway, that’s my standard. Now I use a shop in Berkeley. That’s as close as I’ve come to Alex’s.”
A traditional Burns Supper includes, along with the haggis, “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes), “cock-a-leekie” (chicken soup), and more—with generous helpings of whisky.
“We are blessed at Academia to have a self-described foodie in Jonathan Hirshon, who runs a blog called the Food Dictator. He’s a true gourmet. So all things culinary end up in his wheelhouse. He takes the food very seriously. For the cock-a-leekie, he puts a sort of classic, Eastern European Jewish spin on it. It’s really delicious and very much in the spirit of the thing. For people who don’t want the haggis, we’ve had venison or different things, too. Sometimes salmon—a good Scottish fish.”
Guests recite Burns’s poems and songs, often including “To a Mouse,” “Tam o’Shanter,” and others.
“We usually have someone read ‘Green Grow the Rashes.’ I like ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That.’ We’ve never had anyone read any of Burns’s Masonic poems, such as ‘A Farewell to the Brethren of St. James Lodge,’ or ‘The Mason’s Apron.’ We should, though.”
Toast to the Lassies
Traditionally, a male guest recognizes the women in attendance with a good-natured and humorous speech.
“It’s not exactly Toastmasters, but people show their wit and usually live up to the occasion. For Academia, we’re not one of those lodges where families are involved all the time. It’s the one big night where our families come out, so for us it’s special.”
Auld Lang Syne
The event closes with the singing of Burns’s most famous song—a staple of New Year’s and Masonic gatherings around the world.
“Even before that, we always sing ‘Scot’s Wha Hae,’ then we go into ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Everyone holds hands around the horseshoe table. Ironically, we do the Chain of Union at our lodge meetings and at the end of degrees, but not at Burns Night. Maybe we will this year.”
More from this issue:
When a monument to his grandfather came under newfound scrutiny, Julius Kahn used the opportunity to shine a light on a lesser-known familial legacy: Florence Prag Kahn.