Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Tongue Incident Revisited.

I am a bit burned out with blogging, so in honor of St. Patrick's day, I am reposting my adventures from last year when I attempted to pimp our corned beef and cabbage by preparing Alice Waters' boiled dinner.

Rereading it, I expected it to be all about my struggle with the bison tongue, which is my chief memory of the occasion, but instead I was struck by the glimpse it gave into my life as a nurse, which now seems to have happened to another person in another life.  I describe working all night, setting my alarm for noon so that I could get up and start cooking. I talk about my PhD in gross.  It's hard to believe I used to stay up all night:  twelve hours of trying to keep up with patients who were in pain, or who were confused and trying to jump out of bed.  Trying to keep DT's at bay (in patients, not myself!), running from unit to unit in order to steal sheets when our own linen cart was empty, trying to draw 04:00 labs out of central lines in the dark without waking the patient, scurrying to get my patients smartened up for 05:00 rounds.  That was my actual life!  It's like the universe was playing a joke on me and now it's over and we can have a good laugh.

Also in the tongue entry is a pathetic paragraph about how Jon never even came home for dinner that night because he stopped at a neighbor's keg party on the way home from work and stayed until long past dinner time.  The kids were out too, so I was alone in the house with this dinner I'd spent two days preparing.  I'd forgotten that part of the story as well.


I'm Irish but I'm not a big fan of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's day.  We never cooked it at home when I was growing up, although my parents would indulge in an Irish coffee every year on St. Patrick's day.  Last year (2010) 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 beef tongue.  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. The guy at the Organic Butcher did not act at all surprised 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.  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'd 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.  I've packed horrifying human wounds with enough gauze to cover a city block, scrubbed dead skin off 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.  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.


And people, a gentle reminder:  it's St. Paddy's Day, not St. Patty's Day.  Or you could just say Patrick.


  1. How brave of you. The mom & pop deli I worked at in high school carried tongue, so I've seen it, touched it and can say I'm done with it.

  2. That's it, I'm becoming vegetarian and I'm never becoming a nurse. More career options are being eliminated daily!

  3. How things have changed since you first wrote this...I still have never tasted tongue. Well, COOKED tongue...

  4. Epic. In the old days I just ate beer on St Patrick's Day. It made things simple.

  5. Well done on the Tongue.

    It's also a popular dish in Scotland. Cold tongue (normally pickled and jellied) is great in salads and for sandwiches (with pickle and thick butter)

    It's actually one of my favourites(including my Beloved who is from Singapore and acted like the tongue was Satan's Penis the first time she saw it)(Question? How does she know what Satan's Penis looks like?)

    I've spent a lot of time in Ireland, both North and South, and I've never seen boiled cabbage, spuds and corned beef served anywhere. Must be an American Black Irish thing.

    Just drink plenty of Guiness, and don't forget Guiness is the most methanogenic of all beers. Wear nose plugs.