With the exception of some Jewish Americans, some Latin Americans—whose food culture may often include it—and some LA supper club hipsters, diners in the United States don’t really seek out beef tongue as a dinner item. I get it: Enjoying the taste of something that some other living, breathing being used to taste things with is conceptually bizarre. The only other instance where we derive pleasure from touching one of our organs to another being’s analogous organ is when we mash our genitals against someone (some thing?) else’s genitals. Or when we mash our tongues next to another’s in embrace. While fucking or kissing seems mostly natural, eating tongue feels anything but.
Perhaps the average American’s hesitance to consume tongue is dictated by the average American restaurateur’s hesitance to put it on the menu: One cannot eat what one is not offered, after all. And because you’re not likely to come across a Jewish deli or a traditional taqueria in, say, my hometown of Amesbury, MA (or any other extremely white and boring town in America), the barrier to beef tongue entry then looms large. Beef tongue is not a part of our national culinary identity, and that lack of infrastructural knowledge—how to clean it, how to butcher it, how to prepare it—means that hundreds of millions of people are consistently missing an opportunity to eat one of the best tasting cuts of beef on the planet.
Besides beef tongue being very tasty, it comes with a larger benefit. It’s not a secret that we Americans waste a lot of our food—about 40 percent from farm (uh, factory) to fork to trash can. Milk goes sour, bread gets moldy, lettuce goes limp, we forget we bought that bulk cottage cheese. Shit happens. Using Thanksgiving as an example—how many people remove the bag of giblets from the cavity of our turkey and, instead of frying them up with some red pepper flakes and olive oil, chuck them immediately in the garbage on top of half a dozen discarded egg shells or a pile of dirty baby diapers? My guess is the majority. It’s insanely wasteful, especially considering things like hearts, lungs, livers, and kidneys remain edible and delicious even if conceptually strange.
We as a nation need to stop being so afraid of offal, and beef tongue is a good place to start.
Eating tongue isn’t a new phenomenon, but rather a very old one that, because of the onset of the American Factory Food Industrial Complex, we’ve chosen to forget. According to an essay in the April 1999 edition of Science, hominids have been chopping the tongues out of their prey for at least 2.5 million years.
The first indication of hominid tool use in Hata times came during surface collection and excavation of the BOU-VP-12/1 partial skeleton locality…Here, several pieces of mammalian bone showed cut marks and percussion marks made by stone tools. Excavation revealed the left mandible of a medium-sized alcelaphine bovid with three successive, curvilinear striae on its posteromedial surface; these striae are unambiguous cut marks made by a sharp stone flake, presumably during tongue removal.
In laymen’s terms: Our pre-human but still hominid ancestors were cutting tongues out of the heads of ancient cows and eating the fuck out of them. Granted, the tongues our pre-human ancestors were eating were probably tough and not very pleasant because they were probably eating them raw. But the tongues available to us now are tender and creamy and super beefy. (Unless you’re a psychopath/cannibal who’s running around lopping the tongues out of his victim’s heads, in which case I stand corrected.)
If you’re lucky enough to live within proximity of a decent Jewish deli, go snag yourself a pickled beef tongue sandwich. And if you’re lucky enough to live within proximity of a decent taqueria, instead of choosing the same old boring chicken taco you get Every Fucking Friday, opt for the lengua. If you live in a place where it’s not readily available, well, you’re going to have to fend for yourself and make your own damned beef tongue. Lucky for you, I love the stuff and have a decent recipe for braised beef tongue tacos. (Note: By this I mean that I’ve pilfered from various traditional Mexican recipes to arrive at something that is sort of, kind of my own.)
Beef tongues are disgusting looking. (I’m really selling it, aren’t I?) When fully intact, they’re equipped with a somewhat leathery outer skin (taste buds and all) and some cartilage and sinew at the base. If you’d like, you can remove the cartilage and the sinew—though it’s entirely edible—and the outer skin before cooking. Removing the cartilage and sinew is straightforward: just hack it off. Removing the outer skin is a bit trickier because it involves kneading and massaging the organ till the skin begins to separate from the meat it’s attached to, but the knife skills involved aren’t dissimilar in technique from removing the silver skin from a pork loin. (Maybe you don’t know how to do that, either. This might help.)
You can also remove the skin in the middle of the cooking process, after blanching it for an hour and a half or so. You know how the interior flesh of a sweet potato begins to separate from the outer skin as you bake it? Think that, only with a tongue. Once blanched, the skin should peel away with relative ease. I recommend finding a butcher who will remove the skin for you, however, especially if this is your first foray into at-home tongue eating.
Along with the tongue, you’ll need the following: Two yellow onions, red onion, cilantro, corn tortillas, queso fresco, one head of garlic, bay leaves (five or so should be fine), a tablespoon of peppercorns, a tablespoon of salt, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and cumin.
Once you’ve got a naked tongue, start making the braising liquid. Fill a stockpot till it’s three-quarters full with water, and add to it your onions (quartered is fine), crushed garlic (the whole dang head), bay leaves, peppercorns, and salt. Sometimes I’ll add a cinnamon stick or two for a little bit of warmth, but it’s not traditional so you can skip this ingredient if you’d like.
Once the braising liquid has reached a rolling boil, add the tongue to the pot, pull the heat back to a simmer, and cover. Cook for another hour and a half or two, or until the tongue is tender to the touch. Unless you blow it (you’ll probably blow it the first time around), you’re about fifteen minutes away from tasty taco treats.
At this point, you’re going to want to remove the tongue from the braising liquid and let it stand for ten minutes, uncovered, on a cutting board. Take this time to prep your tortillas and various taco accoutrement. Chop your cilantro, warm your tortillas in a low oven (150 degrees for no more than a few minutes, otherwise they’ll get brittle and dry, which is no bueno), dice your red onion, and bloom your red pepper flakes and cumin (a pinch of each, give or take, is fine) in olive oil in a skillet over a medium flame.
After you’ve allowed the tongue to rest, it’s time to slice it up. You can slice the tongue however you like, but rough cubes are what I go for. The size of an individual brick of PEZ should do. Once sliced, add the tongue bricks to the skillet and toss with the oil and spices. The tongue only needs a minute or two on the stovetop before it’s ready to serve.
You’re now mere moments away from some luscious tongue to tongue contact. Add a scoop of the tongue to a warm tortilla, top it with red onion, queso fresco and cilantro, and then devour. Don’t be afraid of the guts and organs, folks. They’re often the best part.
Terrence lives in Boston, where he works as an editor for America’s Test Kitchen. He’s co-founder of Bender Magazine, and has also written for Vice Sports, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. Sometimes he tweets poorly @TerrenceDoyle.