The Art of Scottish-American Cooking
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.