Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tongue, I'm on the Fence

My interactions with tongue have been sparse, even though I have been known as a big advocate. My flirtation with this muscle began in my early teens. My aunt Tina opened my eyes to the possibility of honoring this part of the cow as a tantalizing portion of a hearty and rustic meal. I was introduced at an evening meal and I was unsuspecting of the set up. There was vaguely perverse glee dancing on my aunt's face as she ladled meat and cabbage and potatoes into my plate. She sat down, after all were served, and said, "We're eating cow tongue, enjoy!"

I was apprehensive, but there were factors that weighed in the tongue's favor. First of all, being a nurse, aunt Tina always had a superior air about the health of food, in particular vegetables. She sounded like an authority and she was the mother of my favorite cousin, so I had to look up to her; it was inevitable, even when I really didn't like what was in front of me.

I remember that the tongue had a purple hue from the cabbage, along with the potatoes and I want to recall that there was broth, but I'm less sure of that. I do, however, remember that it was so incredibly tender. It tasted like what I imagined veal ought to taste like. That night I decided that I liked tongue. It was magic and I was going to learn the nifty trick: making it delicious. 

This incited one of the greatest misadventures in cooking I've ever lived through. I remember approaching tongue in the meat aisle and facing it in all its raw, taste bud-speckled truth. My aunt had mentioned something about boiling to remove that outer layer. I felt I was up to the culinary challenge, so I braced myself and put the sucker in the shopping cart.

Aside from the clear feeling that it was a huge failure, I've blocked out most of the cooking and eating experience. I do, however, recollect the instance of taking the "meat" out of a boiling pot of water and trying to rip the outer layer from its promised inner glory. I think I was working with large metallic kitchen thongs and I was losing the battle.

A few years back I made breakfast for my brother, which I really like to do because it is one of the rare times that Matt will give me props. I like to extend these accolades, draping them out like a long silk scarf that I coil into, to be sheathed from the harsher side of life. This particular morning, though, the coffee I made did not agree with Matt. I protested. He insulted. I protested, louder. He did not desist. I felt the blood rushing to my head, the higher road was dissipating. Before I knew what happened I was right in the middle of sibling rivalry, a realm I seldom ended getting out of without a few bruises, but I didn't want to believe it. I really, really wanted that damn scarf! I was yelling for my scarf when Matt beat me to the punch. I kept harping on his ingratitude when he busted out, "Well, whatever, I haven't forgotten about that tongue." Damn it! He won. 

Since that culinary blunder I have had tongue twice more. Once it was at a restaurant in the Upper East Side. It was a German place where the delicacy was so much like a nondescript cold cut that I was not offended or amazed, just a little satisfied that I'd ventured into the dark side once again. 

This Friday a menu brought me face to face with the formidable tongue yet again. It was at Momofuku Ssam. The menu captured me in the same way that the first tongue dish did as a prepubescent. I was at a place I really wanted to like with a menu that, even with my eccentric tastes, challenged me. I flirted with the snails and the beef tendon, but I ordered the lamb's tongue because it was coupled with fava beans, which are an exotic legume for me. In the end, I loved the other dish I tried, the charred squid salad. It was the perfect texture eluding the slightest hint of rubber and the dressing, while multi-dimensional, still let the squid's flavor come through. Plus, it didn't leave that je ne sais quoi smudge on the palate that reminded me at every bite of the tongue that it was sort of like meat, but--as the menu puts it--offal.

Momofuku ssam bar

207 2nd Ave
NY, NY 10003

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