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A Highlander and his Books
A Chat with Author Kay Shaw Nelson


The Art of Scottish-American Cooking
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:jurascot@earthlink.net

Kay Shaw Nelson is a talented lady known for her meticulous research and unique style of writing. She is equally talented as a lecturer and newspaper columnist. Although Kay is now the author of 20 cookbooks, she is just as well known as the writer of articles on current affairs and historical subjects that appear frequently in Washington Woman, Family Circle, and The Scottish Banner. She is a member of the National Press Club, American News Women’s Club, Les Dames d’Escoffer, Society of Women Geographers, Culinary Historians of Washington, and the Living Legacy of Scotland. She is equally proud of her memberships in the Clan Shaw Society and the MacAskill Sept Society. I’ve never met anyone prouder of her Scottish ancestry.

Kay is a graduate of Syracuse University with a B.A. in Russian Studies and Journalism. Her first newspaper positions found her reporting for New Hampshire papers Claremont Daily Eagle and Manchester Union Leader. She served as an intelligence officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Washington, D.C. Interestingly she wrote the introduction “How to Go from Spies to Pies: Operation Gastronomy” for the best-selling cookbook Spies, Black Ties, & Mango Pies: Stories and Recipes from CIA Families All Over the World.

This global nomad has traveled extensively in the Middle East, Europe, the Far East, North Africa, North and South America, and the Caribbean Islands. She actively pursued her interest in gastronomy and cooking techniques, as well as the lore and history of foods and nation dishes. Kay now resides in Bethesda, Maryland. This New Hampshire lass is a frequent lecturer on the history of cookbooks, writers, and travel subjects.

I have known Kay for years, and we have swapped many emails on food, Clan Shaw, books, and items of historical interest. We decided there is a possibility that we might be “distant cousins”. Her ancestors come from the Isle of Harris which, from my family’s home on the Isle of Jura, is a brief boat ride away. Several years ago she wrote a fascinating article for a regular column I edit on Robert Burns regarding the land and food of the National Bard. It can be found on www.electricscotland, Robert Burns Lives! Volume 1, Chapter 4. In closing my introductory remarks about my friend and “distant cousin” Kay Shaw Nelson, let me refer you to a chart in my office that is faded a good bit. On “The Lineage of the Clan Shaw Chiefs” chart there is a line that reads, “Shaws of Harris, Jura and the Western Isles”. Kay may not be such a distant cousin after all! I hope you enjoy my recent chat with Kay regarding her latest publication.

Q:  You and I have been talking about your writing another cookbook for a few years.  As author of 19 previous cookbooks, what made you decide to publish The Art of Scottish-American Cooking?

A:  Years ago my late husband, Wayne, jokingly said, “You’ve written about the cuisines of many countries where we’d lived and traveled, why not the Scots?” We had been in Scotland and enjoyed their seafood, game, breads, and desserts, as well as a dram or two. “Why do Americans think Scots eat only haggis and laugh about the cookery? They have an image problem,” he added.

They sure did, so later I delved into old cookery books, looked up traditional recipes and acquired some knowledge about the cuisine that I put in A Bonnie Scottish Cookbook. Later, my The Scottish Irish Pub and Hearth Cookbook, about two Celtic cuisines, was published. Meanwhile I kept collecting date about the great culinary contributions of Scots in America as my books include history and travel as well as cooking, and had files filled with recipes and pertinent information. I began writing a proposal for a possible book but did not receive much support, except from my daughter Rae, including Scottish organizations that I contacted. Thus I wrote other books but kept thinking about my idea or dream. Fortunately, I’m stubborn or persistent and kept looking for a publisher. 

Q:  In an email back in April of 2003, you mentioned you had “put together a proposal for a Bonnie Scottish-American cookbook”. Has it really taken three years to publish your book? Give us a brief description of the journey from then until now.

A:  On October 12, 2004, I sent a three-page query letter about a possible Scottish-American Cookbook to Pelican Publishing Company. On November 3 I received a response stating the editor would be happy to review some sample material for possible publication that I sent. After some email exchanges I signed a contract in June, 2005, and agreed to send the complete manuscript by October. Due to later complications after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana where the publisher is located and, due to their backlog, the book was not published until March 2007. They have been and are a good publisher to work with and I’m pleased about the book.

Q: I’ve read of your family forebearers, the Morrisons, MacLeods, MacAskills, and Shaws, on the small isle of Cape Breton. Was there really a giant among them who was the strongest man in the world, who held Tom Thumb in his hand, and who met Queen Victoria in London? Tell us a wee bit about him.

A:  As a child I remember sitting in wide-awed aye to hear about a real live giant in our family tree, my other’s legendary cousin, The Giant Angus MacAskill, born in Scotland and brought up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Once acclaimed as the “strongest man on earth,” stories about his strength and remarkable feats reached P.T. Barnum who took the 7-foot, 9-inch, 425-pound Scot on tour for five years in the mid-1800s. He and Tom Thumb were billed as the world’s largest and smallest human beings. At The Giant MacAskill Museum in Englishtown, many of his personal belongings are on display and he is remembered as a “successful public man, who did not feel bigger than he was.” Some MacAskills say he was just another “Braw Scottish laddie” brought up on a Cape Breton diet of parritch, bannocks, and oatcakes.

Q:  I love haggis. The worst haggis I ever eat was still good! Whenever my wife, Susan, and I are at functions where haggis is being served, I always make sure I sit by her since she has never developed a taste for the delicacy - so I am doubly blessed to get two servings! In your book you have a great article on haggis. Have you ever made haggis?  If so, how did it turn out and what was the occasion?

A:  Although I do enjoy eating haggis and like specialties made by some of my friends, I have never made it as I don’t like dealing with innards.

Q: Why do you think Scottish food in general and haggis in particular have gotten such a bum rap over the years with all too many jokes and negative comments?

A:  I once wrote that it’s about time to hoist ‘a cup o’ kindness’ and sing the praises of ‘guid Scottish fare’. There have long been too many tedious jokes and errant jokes about Scottish cookery. One of them is that Scots dine frugally on mundane fare, and we’ve all heard the ridicule about the curious and famous dish called haggis. The cooking is much better than its reputation and is more versatile than generally realized. The Scottish cuisine is distinct and inviting and can stand comparison with any other. I think the bum rap is due to a lack of knowledge about the cuisine and it’s often been linked with that of England that has had a negative reputation in America. Scottish Americans have not done much to publicize their cuisine and often serve the same old mundane fare.

Q: A dish that Sir Walter Scott was fond of having on Sunday evenings was sheep’s head which, out of respect for the Sabbath, had been prepared in advance. Evidently sheep’s head was also a favorite of others because Benjamin Franklin, on one of his two trips to Scotland, mentioned that his various hosts often gently argued over whose cook prepared the best. I’ve never seen a recipe for it or for sheep head soup. Do you have one you can share with our readers?

A:  David Hume, the great philosopher and historian, was also fond of Sheep’s Head Broth that he made and wrote about it. In The Scots Kitchen, F. Marian McNeill has recipes for To Dress a Sheep’s Head and Jellied Sheep’s Head as well as Sheep’s Head Broth called Powsowdie, from pow, head, and sowdie, boiled, made with sheep’s head and trotters, mutton, barley, peas, carrots, turnips, onion, parsley, salt, pepper, and water, a recipe too lengthy to include here.

Q: What are two or three restaurants in Scotland that you recommend for one to really enjoy good Scottish fare?

A:  The Witchery by the Castle in Edinburgh, Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye, and Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

Q: Benjamin Franklin, as you point out, often wrote about food, and we all look forward to a good meal or two each day if we are lucky. I have often wondered why the great writers like Burns, Scott, or Stevenson spend so little time in their writings on food. Why do you think they did not write about food when you know they had to enjoy it?

A:  The great Scottish writers did write quite a lot about food, eating, and dining as well as drinking. My article about Burns and descriptions of his native fare was published in The Family Tree. I have written an article, The Gastronomic World of Sir Walter Scott. Stevenson has interesting mentions of dishes including collops in Kidnapped. Two of my favorite writers, the poet James Hogg (The Ettrick Shepherd) and Tobias Smollett in Humphrey Clinker, wrote a lot about Scottish fare. Don’t forget that marvelous sources about his subject are in the books of Boswell & Johnson.

Q: Drambuie, the liqueur formula given to Captain John MacKinnon by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 is, as you stated, “Scotland’s oldest and most famous liqueur.” Since the bonnie prince was born in Rome, and he supposedly brought the formula with him from Italy to Scotland, is it in reality an Italian liqueur adopted by Scots? What do the MacKinnons say about this aspect of their carefully guarded secret formula?

A:  I don’t think there is a connection with Rome. Some authorities say Bonnie Prince Charlie gave the elder MacKinnon a prized possession, a formula for a strong cordial that was created for the Prince when he lived at the French Court. F. Marian McNeill has a different opinion. In The Scots Cellar she wrote that the legend about its French origins are unlikely and believes that the original liqueur was “prepared by the MacKinnons in Prince Charlie’s honour, or at least that he was regaled with it during his stay in the island.” For by 1746 Highland families were concocting liqueurs or similar cordials for their person use, she explains. I have no comment from the MacKinnons.

Q: What is your favorite Scottish, not Scottish-American, recipe? And, if it is not in the book, please list the ingredients.

A:  One favorite is Pan Haggerty, cheese-flavored potatoes cooked in a pan in a ragged or topsy-turvy manner made with four peeled medium potatoes, sliced; 1 large onion, sliced; fried in fat and then arranged in layers topped with 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper, dotted with butter, and cooked, covered, over moderate-low heat for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and brown under a broiler until golden on top.

Q: Did your parents, Dolina MacAskill and Angus Shaw (My, how I love that name!) instill in you the proud heart of a Scot that you wear so well? Give us a couple of your favorite memories of them and their Scottishness.

A:  When I was a child in Lebanon, New Hampshire, my Scottish Canadian parents sometimes spoke Gaelic and our family stories generally centered on their beloved homeland, Cape Breton. I heard about the island’s Scottish attractions and my relatives who lived there. We didn’t know many Scots in our town, but my parents went a few times to some Scottish gatherings. From my mother I learned about the goodness of wholesome foods – soups, porridge, oat dishes, and especially breads.

Q:  My friend, Jamie Scarlett, has written a dozen books on tartans, and now I know a lady who has written 20 cookbooks, and I consider both to be dear friends. When Jamie had published 10 books on tartans, I asked if he had another one in him. He said he didn’t think so but later circumstances presented themselves in such a way that two more books on the subject appeared. Do you have another cookbook or two in you for the future to share with us?

A:  I have a backlog of books that I would like to write, ranging from a Mother’s Day and 4th of July cookbooks to Cooking with the Bible and The Cloak and Dagger Cook, A CIA Memoir about my years of traveling, spying and dining with that organization and that I am now writing.

Q: I am grateful for your cooperation on the book review and on this “chat” article. You have written a mighty fine cookbook which with it historical stories and anecdotes is more than just a cookbook. You have more than proven that those who joke about Scottish food are the jokers instead. Is there a last word you would like to leave with our readers on www.electricscotland.com?

A:  Please remember that my book is more than just a cookbook as it “offers a comprehensive view of Scottish-American culture and how it is alive and well today.” Thank you for the review, chat and contribution to this culture.  (FRS: 5-31-07)


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