The Comfort Food Diaries: A Trick of the Tongue

Cow's tongue, as my mom saw it, was one of the greatest cuts of beef, and she made sure her children weren't among the ignorant.

Zac Overman

My mom had a story she used to love to tell me about a dinner she hosted back in the '70s. "I bought a cow's tongue," she'd say, raising her eyebrows mischievously. "Then I boiled it, cut it into thin slices, covered them in a curry-cream sauce, and told my guests only that it was beef." They all dug in, she'd recount, and then one of her unsuspecting victims looked up from his plate and exclaimed, "This is the best filet mignon I've ever had!"

Now, when it comes to my mother's stories, it's nearly impossible to separate the heavy dose of exaggeration from the grains of truth that lie underneath. My mom was as iconoclastic as a person can be, but in this case, I'd like to think that she wouldn't have deceived guests into eating something they otherwise wouldn't.

Even more important, though, is the critical flaw in the tale that convinces me of her embellishments: Cow's tongue is far too tender and delicious to be mistaken for a lean piece of beef like filet mignon, a cut whose main selling point is not flavor but mere chewability. And that, ultimately, was the whole point of her story. Cow's tongue, as my mom saw it, was one of the greatest cuts of beef, a fact she was convinced more people would realize if only they weren't too lily-livered to eat it. She made sure her children weren't among the ignorant.

To reinforce this message of cow-tongue superiority, she'd take me and my sister to New York City's great delis, where we'd eat overstuffed tongue sandwiches on rye with mustard. The leftovers would end up in my lunch bag the next day. On those afternoons at the Doris L. Cohen Public School 230 in Kensington, Brooklyn, all the kids would un-crinkle their brown paper bags and reach inside. Out would come PB&Js on squishy white bread, tuna fish on whole wheat, little plastic cups of Mott's applesauce, and boxes of juice. And there I'd be with my gargantuan half of a tongue sandwich, the rye compressed after a night under the meat's weight, a couple of spears of full-sours on the side. I delighted in daring my repulsed friends to take a bite, which they never did.

A lot has changed since then. Organ meats are frequently listed on restaurant menus now, and more and more people are willing to order them. I make a point of getting tongue any time I see it, whatever the preparation. It's also my go-to meat choice for tacos and cemitas, especially when I'm not sure how good the restaurant or food cart is. That's partly a strategic decision, because no matter how bad the cook, tongue is just about impossible to screw up. But most of all, it's to remind myself of the lesson buried in my mom's parable: Expand your horizons, and find comfort in the weird and unfamiliar...lest you live a narrow-minded life in which filet mignon is the pinnacle of beef.

January 2016