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FOOD AND LOATHING : Tongues for the Memory

March 18, 1993|SCHUYLER INGLE

My friend Marguerite Margason, she who maintains that the innards revolution has yet to hit American cooking but can't be far away, was once the charcutiere for a Seattle restaurant, Les Copains, that set a standard of excellence and daring in its day. Innards played no small part.

Marguerite, as a means of describing what it meant to be a full-time charcutiere , once told how she would get up early on a cold, drizzly Seattle winter morning and go down to the cold, damp basement in her house to confront a plastic garbage can full of brine and cow tongues.

"There they would be," she told me, "lolling over the edge of the garbage can, waiting for me. First thing in the morning, mind you. Not the most pleasant greeting. And then I'd roll up my sleeve and plunge my arm deep into the brine and tongues to give the little darlings a stir."

Marguerite had no idea, of course, how revolting all this sounded to my sensitive ears. If I am repelled by one food item out there, it is tongue. Repelled hardly sums it up, however. I loathe tongue. I hate tongue. In the market I point it out to my young son, Farrell, whose diet consists for the most part of pasta and broccoli.

"Look at that," I say, pointing at a thick, bumpy cow's tongue as gray as a plastic garbage can. "People actually eat that. Your uncle actually likes it. He cooks it for himself." Young Farrell, child after my own heart, just can't imagine such craziness.

It's all my mother's fault, this thing I have about tongue. The aberration grew gradually. I remember eating tongue as a child, probably braised and served with some kind of thick, sweet, raisin-flavored sauce.

First you boil the tongue for a couple of hours. Then you trim off the gristle and the root at the thick end. (The root. My God. That it has a root sends unwholesome signals to my gut.) And then you peel off the skin, all those goose-bumpy taste buds that not too long before had been licking up clover or savoring cud. And then you continue cooking the thick morsel until, well, until it's done. Yeow.

Like any other Seattle child in the late 1950s, I took skiing lessons. The Buzz Fiorini Ski School bus would pick us up, young tykes and deeply matured teen-agers alike, in the wee hours of the morning at various scheduled stops. Moms in their bathrobes would keep their cars running in the dark morning chill, waiting for the bus to arrive, then send us off to the mountains for the day, rain or shine or, in the case of the mountains, sleet. Of ski lessons, I mostly remember being cold and wet.

And the smell of diesel exhaust. The drivers would all gather in one bus and keep the engine running to provide heat. They'd play cribbage.

Now, normally a kid would carry his lunch with him to the slopes and eat in the hot, steamy lodge at the foot of the chairlift. But on one fateful occasion, I forgot my brown bag and thus had to eat in the bus with the smell of diesel exhaust. I was cold and I was wet, and when I had settled into my seat with my lunch, stripping off my parka, I was too warm and too moist. I probably had little fires burning in my little cheeks.

I was hungry. Ski school can do that to a kid. I opened up the sack and removed a wax paper-wrapped sandwich. It was a tongue sandwich. Cold tongue. Leftovers. My mother had made it in a hurry in the morning long before the sun had come up, had thrown it into the paper sack, and rushed me out the door to the bus.

She had used squishy white bread. She had used a leaf or two of iceberg lettuce. But most of all, she had used about a half pint of French's mustard and Best Foods mayonnaise, all smeared together.

I held the sandwich in my small, cold fingers in the dark at the back of the bus, all alone. I raised it to my mouth. I must have squeezed a little too hard, for mustard and mayonnaise squished up between my fingers, an awful combination.

In all honesty, however, I should reveal that not too long ago I ate a slice of beautifully smoked tongue, and I almost caved in on my one great food hate. And then I thought of Marguerite with her arm plunged up to the shoulder into a gray garbage can of gray, lolling tongues in a cold basement on a cold, wet Seattle morning. Brining precedes smoking. I declined the second slice.

RISOTTO WITH LAMB TONGUE 8 lamb tongues 2 bay leaves 2 1/4 medium onions 1/4 lemon 1 quart chicken stock 1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced 2 tablespoons olive oil 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons minced parsley Salt, pepper 2 sprigs fresh thyme 3 cups arborio rice

Place tongues in saucepan with 1 bay leaf, 1/4 onion and 1/4 lemon. Add enough water to cover. Place over medium heat and simmer, covered, about 1 hour or until tongues are very tender when pierced with fork. When done, remove tongues from liquid and reserve. Over high heat, continue to boil liquid until reduced to 1 quart. Discard bay leaf, onion and lemon.

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