Transforming Tongue: The Alchemy of Cooking (“True Detective” Style).

White to rose to crimson this cow tongue’s muscle, fat, cartilage, and bone draws our attention more as anatomy than food, but food it is . . . simmer for hours, smoke for hours, roast, sautée, stew.  Why paint such a raw scene?  Gustave Caillebotte’s Calf’s Head and Ox Tongue (1882) exemplifies an everyday reality of meat markets, fruit stands, men stripping a floor, men and women bathing or standing at a window, walking in a street as in his painting Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877).


Parisians promenade down avenues looking for chocolate and tea, wax museums, fricasseed spinach and crushed fried croutons, bordellos, bookstores, glass doors leading into casinos, markets where they’ll buy a cow tongue and plop it in a pot with onions, carrots, leeks, thyme, white vinegar and chicken stock for hours, peel the tongue, while drinking much wine, then onto slicing.  Time to move from 19th century Paris to 21st century Houston and my cow tongue.


Just purchased at Fiesta, colors shine similar to Gustave Caillebotte’s cow tongue. The darkish-grey papillae clearly seen along the edge, deep furrows in the muscle, cross-hatched fat and flesh, offer a solidity in the world.  The tongue has been cut into two pieces–one the long foot of the muscle, the other a more marbled root.  I can see Caillebotte’s interest in this tentacle of taste.


Time to submerge both pieces in a brine.  I’m using Fergus Henderson’s recipe which calls for sugar (he doesn’t use brown, but I am), sea salt, juniper berries, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, and, of course, water.  Brine is murky, a bog where salt upends muscle fibers, which leads  to the muscle absorbing more water, allowing for aromatics to swim in and tastefully recreate the tongue.  Here it will swim for seven days.  From emptiness to light and darkness, morning and evening; to water removed from water, land emerging from water, plants that sprout from rocks, seeds and fruits spreading across earth; then a large wheel in blue and smaller wheels in black, wings and fins fill sky and sea, followed by where the wild things are; then those of us who walk with our minds between waters, scissoring our legs across land, eating seeds, fruit, birds, creeping things–we become two, reflections of the creator.  Time to remove the tongue-fish from their marsh.


Washing off the brine, it’s back into water, a water again filled with aromatics, but less of a swamp and more of a pond surrounded and infused by parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, by onion, garlic, carrots and leeks.  Below, the sea tongue-fish have turned freshwater.  Cooking is all about transformation, about how an x (be it plant or animal) turns into Salade Alice or Moussaka, how thick tissue in a cow’s mouth becomes a delicacy on a plate.  This alchemy bubbles through fire and water. Yes, time is a flat circle, and boiling pots have been with us a long time as Harold McGee writes,

As a cooking technique, boiling followed roasting and preceded baking.  It requires containers that are both waterproof and fireproof, and so probably has to await the development of pottery, around 10,000 years ago.  (784)

When Irish Elk and saber-tooth cats disappear from the face of the earth, when cities begin to rise toward the sky, glaciers recede, and beer, gruel and soup appear on tables in Mesopotamia, a tongue begins its change from the mouth of one living animal to the mouth of another living animal.  Civilization in a pot.  And so, everytime I boil water with something floating inside I reenact what has happened before and will happen after me, a constant action linking cooks across millennia, all only one cook.


Three hours later I hook the tongues out and land them on the counter.  All the rich red still in tact, though it’s clear they are not what they once were.


Easy to pull of the skin, easy to feel how the tongue has become more pliable, less resistant to touch, to breaking apart.


I pull apart the with fork and spoon, then heat olive oil in a pan, sauté onion, cabbage, parsley and garlic, add the shredded tongue then apple-cider vinegar, letting all simmer.


I’m going to complement the tongue with Fergus Henderson’s recipe for Green Beans, Shallots, Garlic and Anchovies.  First I roast two garlic bulbs.


Then I blanch fresh green beans in salted water, while in another pan I place olive oil, white vinegar, anchovies, garlic, (I’m out of capers), parsley, pepper, and radishes (my own addition).  When the beans have steamed, I turn off the fire under the rich mixture and toss all around the greenness.


Gabriela tosses a leafy salad with cucumber slices and we’re ready to eat. Tongue when prepared this way tastes like roast beef in a vinegary slaw, an acidity matched and extended by the umami saltiness of the green beans with anchovies, and finally the Butterhead lettuce and cucumbers cleanses and enlivens the palette to dive back into an age-old ritual of eating nose to tail, earth to sea.  Bon Appétit!



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