USING THE TOTAL ANIMAL Alla slices the beef. (photo by Lindsay Sterling)
Most animal parts come so deconstructed from the whole that I don’t think of animals at all when I’m cooking. Steak tips are steak tips. Hamburgers are hamburgers. This is perhaps how I’ve lived as a meat eater, in a kind of denial: I’m not eating animals, I’m eating meat. But recently I came face to face with an animal part that threatened my usual delusion. At a recent family reunion, my brother-in-law, Tom, gave me a gift from Vermont: the tongue of his young grass-fed, organic heifer. He gave it to me frozen, sealed in thick plastic. What a gift! It was special, priceless, and gross. I had never cooked tongue myself, but I recalled my two Russian friends, Alla and Yulia, reminiscing about the good old days of beef tongue in Russia, so I took it to them, hoping they’d know what to do with it.
In their kitchen, Alla took the thawed hunk of muscle out of the package. It was long and huge like a giant slug. Alla and Yulia looked excited. Reunited with beef tongue at last! I’d never seen a beef tongue before, so I was trying to act like I was totally cool with the fact that there was cow’s tongue on the cutting board in front of me. It looked a lot like my own tongue, only bigger, and it was blue-gray like dead people on CSI. As far as animal body parts go, tongue ranks up there in my book with bull’s balls as the grossest animal part I could think to eat. Sure, when you think about eating chopped up animal parts, it’s all gross: shoulder, leg, back, ribs, tongue, heart—what’s the difference? But the tongue just seems so personal. Like you might as well just boil the cow’s eyeballs so that they can look up at you, cooked, from a bowl of eyeball soup.
Alla simmered the massive tongue in water with bay leaf, onion, parsley, carrot, and salt for an hour and a half while she and her daughter made some dishes to go with it: mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and a garden salad. When Alla said the tongue was done, it still looked like a cow’s tongue even though now it was floating in a broth that looked like soup, flecked with pretty triangles of carrot. She removed it from the broth, peeled off the layer of outer skin, and then sliced the tongue crosswise into medallions of meat, about two inches wide. Finally, we were looking at meat. It looked good, like normal beef. And it tasted delicious. The texture was smooth, unlike the striated quality of other cuts of meat, and a little bouncy on the tooth. It was great with a little horseradish on top, and with the whole meal they’d prepared.
When I was telling my mother about my squeamishness, she scolded, “Farm to table people need to grow up and get some tongue. Where do people think all the beef tongues go?” Tom told me that the other farmers he knows throw the tongues away because there’s no market anymore for them. Apparently, sometime in the last 50 years Americans became too cool for peasant food. They’d rather just throw undeniable body parts away than face the truth: most of us eat chopped up animals and like it. The whole experience got me thinking that we’ve got to bring tongue back in to vogue. Yeah, it’s hard to look at, but you could always just cook it with your eyes closed.