In the kitchen with pinklightsabre: the cuisine of Scotland

‘Arbroath smoky,’ fall of 2015

In the morning on the third day the rain had finally stopped, the fog lifted, and we could see the land around us. I took a walk along a dirt road beneath a canopy of trees that had lost most of their leaves. The road was used by farming equipment and heavy tractors that formed grooves in the earth but allowed a dry place to stand where the dirt had hardened along the edges to a lip and got pushed up and froze partway overnight. I stood looking through the trees at the far-off fields and bundles of hay rolled up and dozing—and further still, where a family of wild beasts noticed me and stirred: they stretched their long necks and stood, then fled in a flash and bounced as they leapt, as though on pogo sticks—some type of antelope, I guessed. It brought me a sense of calm and contentment and I thought to myself, this is Scotland.

And we’d brought an old issue of Bon Appétit with us, that featured ‘the cuisine of Scotland,’ from a series the magazine ran in the early 2000’s, each year picking a region like Italy, Mexico…but we sneered when it arrived (‘the cuisine of Scotland’), flipped through the recipes and shelved it…and I thought wouldn’t it be funny to bring it with us on our road trip, to actually cook out of it?

There was a guide to drinking Scotch, and a piece by Bill Bryson climbing a Scottish mountain (which was more a hill, by American standards).

The photos were warm and expansive; they captured the rolling green lawns outside some large, old estate. All the pictures made you want to go there. In between, because the magazine was a good 15 years old, the ads looked dated; many featured Starbucks, they carried the design of another time.

We’d tacked up a map of the country to my mom’s schrank in Germany and plotted our route with Post-it notes zig-zagging our way from Arbroath north to Inverness, further still to the Orkneys and down again, then back eastwards, back west to where we’d ferry across to Belfast after Thanksgiving.

The first dish I cooked was called Cullen skink, a thick chowder comprised of potatoes, onion, smoked haddock and cream. The name comes from the town Cullen on the North Sea coast of Scotland, and skink is a common name for soup, but comes from the middle Dutch schenke, possibly looping back to the German word for thigh or ham (Schinken). We sopped it up with bread, and coated it with cracked pepper.

We filled our German car with all our things and when we arrived at each rental we unpacked it: the heavy plastic crates we nabbed from my mom’s vegetable co-op and filled with cookware, books, Legos…the Le Creuset Dutch oven my mom lent us that weighs a good four or five kilos but has good heat transfer…the guitar Lily got from Eberhard, but didn’t play too much.

And when it was time to leave our first place in Arbroath after the rains had stopped, there was a formal garden with a gate and tables covered in tarps where they must have had parties at one time: I took the kids there to poke around, to try to imagine what it would be like, but it was windy and muddy and cold, and strange to be there for just a few days and then off again: and with all our moving around for the next three months across the UK, it started a series of goodbyes to places we made a brief connection with but had to leave, each departure consuming the memory of the last until it made us callus by the end, the goodbyes and packing up mechanical—and like all of life I knew on some level we’d miss it, we’d regret all there was we couldn’t consume. We’d already gotten attached and it was time to go.

The day we left the UK it was foggy and still as we sat in a queue of cars waiting to get on the ferry below the chalk-white cliffs of Dover. It was the first or second day of February and we’d been gone since late October. We stayed the night in a town outside of Paris we couldn’t pronounce, and in the morning when we woke we went down to breakfast in the small hotel, but no one knew how to cook the eggs properly in the steamer, and when Dawn cracked the shell it ran all over the linens, and we had to just leave it like that, and all the French saw us do it.

In the afternoon we pulled back into Besigheim, the small German village where my mom’s lived since 2004—and that night she cooked us dinner, we saw our dog and cat again, it was time for the kids to go back to German school, and soon Dawn and I would be off to Berlin to celebrate Valentine’s Day, our first time away as a couple since Dawn’s birthday last October.

When it was time to leave Germany late April, I left that copy of Bon Appétit with other magazines in the room we used to home school the kids, that we tried to set up as a classroom but it never really worked. I left it behind as you must with things you carry around too long, or put too much value in, but hope in some way you’ll find again when it’s time.

Cullen skink references borrowed from Wikipedia.




Categories: Memoir, musings, travel

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. You really make me want to see some of these places, but I got to tell you I really don’t think I’ll ever eat something called skink.


    • Sounds too close to skank, skunk, mink – skink does. It’s actually not unlike any potato cream soup you’ve had before, I’m sure. Just seems more exotic when you add the smoked fish and cook it ‘in-country.’ Sigh…life is good. Happy hump day to ya’, mate. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Skink. My first night here in Boston, I ate that type of chowder in a Scottish place around the corner, and really liked it. Tough to get past that name — I had a pet gecko when I was a kid, and learned a bit about lizards, so yes, makes you think of an auld Scot with the D.T’s, watching the blue-tongued skinks climbing the walls.
    “Shrank” also caught my eye – – one of my grandmothers spoke a bit of Pennsylvania Dutch, and that is what she called a wooden clothes cupboard, like an armoire.
    I particularly liked “each departure consuming the memory of the last” and the process becoming mechanical/calloused.


    • The schrank definition you describe is precisely it Robert! Hey, welcome to Boston! Hope your first few days there have been good. Funny you had some skink already, that’s a BIT ODD. I like the DT reference, thank you for that. Hoping to hear about your adventures in the city. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • So far, so good, great coworkers, great roommates. I moved in on Sunday, driving a rental truck in this town was a trip – – I worried all morning about killing someone, and by afternoon, was seriously considering it. So I’m in Jamaica Plain, and the first place I found to get something to eat was around the corner – “The Haven,” a nice gastropub kind of place, a little sign said the only Scottish tavern in Boston. There are little paintings of sheep everywhere, people must get nostalgic for the smell of wet wool.
        I like any kind of chowder, fish soup, potato/leek, etc. But I’m thinking they’d probably sell a lot more as “Scotch Chowder” than “Skink”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hmmm, that’s good. I’ve been to Boston only once, can’t imagine driving in it. Have, in Morocco…but I was a lot younger then. My motto from our time in Scotland was “wool, wood fires and whiskey.” And I’m applying the same to all Novembers from here on, regardless my location. Amen, good night, peace be with you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interestingly, Webster’s says “skink” is: “a smooth-bodied lizard with short or absent limbs, typically burrowing in sandy ground, and occurring throughout tropical and temperate regions.”

    You sure that soup has haddock in it? 🤔


  4. Good ending, that last line.


  5. or maybe it has served its usefulness for you, and it was meant to help the next person who found it when you left it behind –

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love that opening paragraph, those gorgeous descriptions of Scotland, all cold and filled with skittish beasties. Love those dozing hay bales – lovely Bill. And a mountain that’s tiny by American standards? You guys always have to have one bigger, don’t you? 🙂 Lovely adventures in Scottish cuisine


    • Good, I ‘stewed’ on that opening paragraph for a while, had it in draft for a week or more and couldn’t complete the rest. Loved your piece today with that girl in the red on the shoreline! Dark, and potent was the adjective I thought, POTENT. I’ve been trying to remember all I can from Scotland now that it’s been two years, feels good to try to relive it. Fingers crossed, we’re coming back to Europe in a few weeks now for the month of December. So we’ll just be south of you, on the continent! And you’ll be celebrating your first Christmas in the new house, I suspect? Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love POTENT – thank you 🙂
        You did a wonderful job of that paragraph, and the rest of that post too – is it two years since your jaunt here? Hell, where did that time go? You going to Germany to see your Mum next month? All that gluhwein and stollen and Krampus? Wonderful place to be when it’s cold I’m guessing.
        Yes, the first Christmas here, and though I’ll be working right up to the evening of Christmas Eve, I’m still looking forward to it very much – it’ll be magical 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah good. Yes, 2 years…and all you mentioned…with emphasis on Krampus indeed. Must be a nice time to be a florist in a way, with the good Pine scents and so on. And how nice when you sign off, the 24th…for something hot, sweetish, and alcoholic….

        Liked by 1 person

      • You have to love a bit of Krampus – must be a good time of year there. Yes, you’re right, lots of lovely scents and out of the busy times for florists it’s the best – a nice atmosphere among the staff and even the customers are usually okay, if a little stressed. I do wish we finished earlier though 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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