IT took a while for my Burns Supper to blossom into an overnight success. Thirteen years, to be exact. Up until then it was a weird little secret, known only to locals in the New Jersey resort town of Cape May (population 3000) I call home. Everything changed last January when our event hit the front page of a regional daily newspaper (“Great Scot” ran the ingenious headline), while another paper published a glowing piece, despite a most unpromising intro: “A Scottish tradition dedicated to a poet few Americans can recognize by name, that features music few Americans listen to and food most Americans find repulsive, may not seem like a natural fit for the sleepy beach town of Cape May.”

Word of our eccentric little event was getting around. From a debut in 2005 with 80 people in a corner pub called the Ugly Mug (that number plunged to 30 in our second year -- long story), the Exit Zero Burns Supper (named after my weekly magazine) is now a hot ticket, with a sellout crowd of 400 packing into Cape May Convention Hall. Truthfully, we could easily sell 500 tickets.

As for that “repulsive” food comment, I can hardly argue. Of the 400 attendees at last night’s event, the 15th annual, 71 ordered haggis. I can say I run one of the larger Burns Suppers in the world -- and also one of the lamest. A 17% Haggis Participation Rate (if this isn’t an official index indicating the authenticity of a Burns Supper, perhaps it should be) isn’t something I can be proud of. Last night, 290 ordered shepherd’s pie (72% for those keeping score), while 39 chose veggie haggis.

A shameful lack of haggis isn’t the only factor that makes my event veer off the traditional road. Yes, I do address the haggis and I do have other people recite Burns’s poems, but I also sing (using the term loosely) Flower Of Scotland and 500 Miles. And –gasp – last night I had a Philadelphia-based Dubliner called John Byrne perform Celtic music, along with a Pittsburgh group, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, rocking the hall – their set began with a raucous version of Auld Lang Syne (my idea).

The National:

Left: Jack Wright

Last year, because I was addressing 400 Americans for the first time (apart from that expat Troon couple) in a big hall, and no longer winging it (half-cut) in a rowdy little bar, I felt I had to put together a somewhat professional audio-visual presentation for the first time. Otherwise, how could I hold their attention all night? So I showed a video clip of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, because the king of pop reportedly based his mega-hit song on the Burns poem Tam O’Shanter (look it up if you don’t believe me); I showed the video of Mull Of Kintyre while our resident pipe band (Nae Breeks) played along; and I added in video messages from Burns Cottage in Alloway and a shout-out from “the biggest Burns Night in the southern hemisphere” in Cape Town, South Africa.

To top off my attempt at adding relevant US culture to the mix, I told my audience a couple of fun facts: that Bob Dylan named 1794’s A Red, Red Rose as the most important influence on his songwriting; and that 1782’s Comin’ Thro The Rye inspired the title of JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye.

But… I felt guilty. I have, over the years, nursed a quiet shame, worrying that one of these nights someone who had been to an authentic Burns Supper would be sitting, arms crossed, muttering about the nonsense unfolding in front of them and giving me a post-supper “You’re a damn fraud” earful.

I did, however, feel better after chatting on Friday with Bill Nolan, president of the Robert Burns World Federation, which I joined last year in a pathetic attempt at adding authenticity to my Burns toolbox. I called Nolan to get a read on how his organisation regards non-traditional suppers.

I was expecting a lecture – to me, Burns Suppers back home always inspire thoughts of posh men in places such as Milngavie and Morningside over-earnestly enunciating their tim’rous beasties and bickerin’ brattle. And yet my only recall of a Burns Supper I actually attended, at the St Mirren Supporters’ Club in the 1980s, is of literally crawling up three flights of cold, stone stairs in my Paisley tenement while my mum watched in disgust from the open front door. Nothing posh or classy about that particular event.

There were no headmasterly lectures from Nolan, though, on the rights and wrongs of a Burns night. The affable Ayrshireman (his Irvine club has been on the go since 1826) was all about keeping Rabbie relevant: “The variety of Burns nights is much greater now, and that’s something we welcome.”

I asked him about the Big Burns Supper, the Dumfries juggernaut that’s easily the world’s largest and longest celebration of the Bard. How did the federation feel about an event that includes attractions such as Queer Haggis, Hans Like A German and Smut Slam in its line-up this year? “You can call it an artificial creation, but it’s great entertainment,” said Nolan. “Anything that can get people into Burns is terrific.”

So, by that logic, it feels kosher for me to sing 500 Miles, right? “Listen, we are the custodians of Burns the poet and it’s our job to attract the next generation,” said Nolan.

“We have a Burns museum in Irvine, and the other day we had a group of primary six kids from Woodlands. They brought a birthday cake to celebrate the Bard’s 260th birthday and sang Happy Birthday and Auld Lang Syne.’’ If you can entice primary six kids to down their iPhones long enough to sing a couple of songs, surely there’s hope for our cultural future.

“You have to be flexible or you won’t survive,” said Nolan. “We live in a society where people don’t have the time or the attention span for a five-hour supper – there are 30-minute events out there.” Thirty minutes?! That’s hardly time to toast the haggis! “It happened at the Globe Inn in Dumfries,” said Nolan. “They did two 30-minute suppers, got it down to a tee.”

At this point, let me puff out my chest and proudly add that my event approaches the six-hour mark. How’s THAT for authenticity?

The National:

Guests at a previous Exit Zero Burns Supper

I had to tell Nolan how few people ate haggis at my event. “The Americans are terrified of it,” I told him. “Aye, and the haggis would probably be terrified of America!” said Nolan, who will be guest speaker at his first US supper next year, in Atlanta.

On Friday, the day before my event, I began musing about why 400 people turn up for a shindig that seems to have little cultural significance for them.

I conducted a straw poll, emailing every person who bought tickets, asking if they’d heard of Rabbie before they’d attended their first Exit Zero Burns Supper. I was surprised that 85% said they had. I wasn’t surprised (obviously) that the majority were anti-haggis.

“Based on research, it sounds gross. This was confirmed last year when we overheard someone at another table ask the waitress for steak sauce to help get it down,” said Kathy Manzetti of Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

“Haggis is gross. Love bagpipes!” said Vicki Allison of Portland, Connecticut (that’s a five-hour trip to Cape May for our Burns Supper – we must be doing something right!) AFTER sipping my first Manhattan of the night (usually gets the gears turning), I began wondering why I run this event. That drunken night at the St Mirren Supporters’ Club was the only Burns Supper I attended in Scotland (far as I can remember – at 53-and-a-half, some things merge and blur).

And it’s not like I ever had a book of Burns’s poetry on my nightstand. My Paisley upbringing was, to be honest, about as Burns-tinged as that of many of the Americans who come to my party every year.

The idea of hosting a Burns Supper in Cape May came up one night in a bar (as things often do), when a Scots-loving hotel operator asked if I had considered hosting a Burns event in the town, especially considering that January here is tumbleweed central.

We kicked off in 2005, donating a thousand bucks to the Indonesian tsunami relief effort. People were dancing on the tables, a night of rowdiness that we never repeated. I’m guessing it was the open bar that did it, something else that we never repeated.

Looking back, it was probably Scottish patriotism (and a desire for a big party in January) that drove the event forward, not a love for Burns. That came later, and it was a gradual process, just like my single malt habit (as a younger, impressionable lad, my drink of choice was bourbon and coke, inspired by the tough cops in NYPD Blue – it was my doctor, concerned about my surging triglycerides, who put an end to that nonsense).

When I shocked my wife in 2014 with a marriage proposal in Scotland, followed by a wedding 24 hours later near Oban (amazing what you can organize using a secret Gmail account), we followed up with a visit to Alloway, touring the uber-impressive Burns museum.

She caught the Burns bug that day – we decided to name our first-born Alloway, if we ever actually had a kid, and if it was a girl. As of press time, we are still childless, but I have a headstrong niece, Alloway, born to my wife’s sister 15 months ago. (Hey, we’re a giving kind of couple.) My wife’s parents and their friends caught the Burns bug, too. They wouldn’t dream of missing this event – they don’t turn up for the literary flavour; they turn up because the dinner is a mish-mash of poetry (not too much) recited in a cute brogue, great folk-rock music, quite a lot of laughs and, ahem, really good shepherd’s pie made by one of the best restaurants in the area.

The National:

Performers at an Exit Zero Burns Supper

But here’s the problem about running a non-traditional supper. What to do next year? How often can I mention Dylan, Jacko and Salinger without getting repetitive? How many video messages from other suppers can I beam on to the projector without it feeling samey? Last night, my new attraction was the First Annual Scottish Accent Contest. I played clips of what I considered the best impersonations – Mel G in Braveheart, Robin Williams’s golf clip and Mike Myers as Shrek – along with one of the worst attempts, Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons.

I then asked volunteers from the audience to come up on stage and recite “Hey yoo… yer bum’s oot the windae” (I never said I was claiming the intellectual high ground) for the right to win a bottle of Robert Burns single malt from our sponsors, Arran Distillery. Oh, right, I forgot to mention… I sold my soul to the deil by accepting corporate sponsorship this year, though it did allow us to send $5000 to victims of the California wildfires. Ticket proceeds also helped us to pledge $3000 dollars to an amazing Mexican orphanage my wife and I recently visited – I’m sure Rabbie, who fathered a football team (plus a sub), would approve.

If you think my accent contest is scraping the cultural barrel, get a load of my idea for next year ... I already wrote a letter to Ellen DeGeneres asking if she’d consider taping a message for our growing army of haggis-haters. Even the all-embracing Robert Burns World Federation might have to consider my expulsion from the group if I pull off that particular stunt.


About the author

Jack Wright worked as an editor at various newspapers before moving to New York to edit men’s consumer magazines. He later headed south to the seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, where he runs the Exit Zero Publishing company and Exit Zero Filling Station.