Friday, March 18, 2011

The $8.39 Dog Treat, or, Coming to Terms with the Alice Waters Boiled Dinner

Despite being as Irish as Paddy's Pig, I'm not a big fan of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's day.  Last year I did Alice Waters' Boiled Dinner from her cookbook The Art of Simple Food.  It was good, but since I didn't decide to make it until the last minute, I had to do an abbreviated version.

This year, with several days to plan, I decided to go whole hog.  Or, as it happens, whole cow.  The full version of this recipe involves brining and cooking a tongue.  A beef tongue, to be exact.  First I had to procure one, and after no luck at the supermarket, I walked into the Organic Butcher, and asked "Do you sell tongue?"  This was embarrassing as I felt like I was asking for something slightly obscene. And yet how many Victorian novels refer to elegant ladies enjoying sandwiches of cold tongue?  The guy at the Organic Butcher did not act at all surprised or shocked, but rummaged for a bit in the game freezer and found a package in the very back.  "I think this is it," he said, "but let me check if it's beef."  A red sticker on the package clearly said "Buffalo," but who am I to question?  He walked away, leaving me with the package.

He was gone for several minutes, indeed, appeared to have left the building, while I pretended an absorbing interest in the contents of the game freezer which was well stocked with rabbits.  I suppose a woman buying a tongue can't pretend any nicety about not eating gross things, but I will say that after having had a bunny for a pet, I could never, ever eat a rabbit.  Poor sweet Georgie!  The one-year anniversary of his death is approaching.

I felt ridiculous standing there, and wondered, not for the first time, why I can't be a normal person and buy normal food and not make a project out of everything.  At least the market in which the Organic Butcher is housed, was emptied of the usual haughty lunch crowd.  Usually I can't walk into the Main St. Market without getting a supercilious up-and-down look from someone. At last the butcher returned from wherever he had been--I suspect he popped out for a quick coffee--and confirmed that the package was indeed beef tongue.  Beef/buffalo; there can't be much difference.

The tongue had to be soaked in brine overnight and when it came time to unwrap the package, I was curiously apprehensive.  Curious, because as a nurse I practically have a PhD in gross.  As a student, I spent weeks dissecting a cat--my nose practically buried in its abdominal cavity as my group and I tried to figure out if it was male or female, a question I think we never did resolve.  I got dead cat juices in my hair and splashed on a cashmere sweater.  I've dissected a cow's eyeball and have packed horrifying human wounds with enough gauze to cover a city block, scrubbed dead skin off severe burns, suctioned gobs of mucus straight from people's lungs, closely eyeballed and measured buckets full of vomit, digestive juices, and literally gallons of urine but nothing I have ever seen was as gross as that disembodied tongue.


It looked like it would jump out of the package and start licking things, independently. Taste buds were discernible and possibly some small hairs but I couldn't bear to look closely.   I tipped it into the brine and covered it and tried not to think about the final steps in its preparation.

St. Patrick's Day, I set my alarm for noon, having worked night shift the night before. I didn't get to bed until nearly 9:00am and managed to achieve verticality by 12:49pm.  Still plenty of time to allow the tongue to simmer for five hours before dinner, plus prepare the meal's other components.

The boiled tongue.

Taking off the skin made it look slightly less revolting, but I was distressed to note that the taste buds extend below the skin.  I sliced off some bits and gave them to the dogs, who, after a few experimental sniffs, seemed to think that tongue was an agreeable snack.  As for myself, I was not prepared for the nauseating smell.   

Sliced and made to look less tongue-like.

I've tasted tongue once before, in a Mexican restaurant where we were eating with a friend of ours from Poland.  "Tongue!" he boomed, "is great delicacy of Polack!" and he urged Jon to order it, although I noticed he didn't order any for himself.  I couldn't resist trying a bite and found it to be dense and not altogether something I wanted to taste again.  But for this dinner, I had placed my trust in the great Alice Waters and it looked like for once she had failed me, because I could not imagine eating this without immediately vomiting.

And I still had to prepare the rest of the meal, which is no small undertaking.  I grated the shit out of my thumb making homemade breadcrumbs, which meant dealing with copious amounts of my own blood.  I had to prepare a homemade meatball mixture of ground chicken and chicken livers and stuff it into individual cabbage leaves, not to mention the actual corned beef and assorted vegetables.

Stuffed cabbage leaves.

Then Jon got distracted by a neighbor's keg party and didn't get home for dinner until 9:00pm, at which point I was half asleep on the couch, watching reruns of That Seventies Show.

I rounded out the meal with a loaf of Irish soda bread--homemade, but which didn't turn out well because I was too tired at that point, to put in much effort-- and a $6.00 jar of mustard.  I did finally taste the tongue--a lentil-sized bite--in the interests of science, and it tasted like beef.  Curiously dense beef.  I will never cook tongue again and the leftovers--except for a small piece that Jon took over to display to the neighbors-- went to the dogs, who after their first taste of tongue seemed to be addicted to it. Luna, who is elderly, began to frisk like a puppy and both dogs followed me all over the house as if they expected me to drop tongue out of my pockets.

Why, exactly, did I go to all this trouble?  Because I don't like corned beef and cabbage?  I also don't like slaving for hours over revolting animal bits.  And washing the 10 million dirty dishes this process creates.  As Madhousewife points out, St. Patrick's Day is the one day when we don't have to ask ourselves what to make for dinner.  You can put three ingredients in a pot, boil them for a while, and your husband will treat you like a goddess for doing so.  There's nothing wrong with that, so next year we are back to traditional corned beef & cabbage for St. Paddy's Day.


  1. You are the bravest person I know this week. Damn. Tongue. *shudder*

  2. For St. Patrick's Day, we ate tacos. No corned beef, no cabbage, and no tongue. Actually, I think I'd eat tongue before I'd eat boiled cabbage.

  3. What Green Girl said. Except with slightly more *SHUDDER*.

  4. Tongue! Ew! Ew ew ew!

    I've had tacos made with tongue. They were tasty. But eating them required a great deal of mind-over-matter mind-control voodoo stuff that I don't ordinarily have to do with my food. I don't think I could ever cook with tongue myself. That's introducing too much reality into the situation.