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Beef Tongue Revisited

My columns for the next three weeks were “in the can” as they say in the movie business and I was relaxing until the muse struck and prompted me to write something else. The muse hasn’t struck yet, but a columnist named Paul Ruffin did. He made disparaging remarks about one of the great taste treats on the planet—beef tongue. I read his poorly researched and somewhat logic-deprived column with my first cup of coffee this morning and realized that such an unprovoked tongue-lashing could not go unanswered.

First, let me tell you how my very long relationship with beef tongue began. When my father was graduated from high school he got a job with Finley’s Packing Plant in McConnelsville, Ohio. That was the only place he ever worked with the exception of a war job in WW II. When cows were butchered at the plant dad would pick out a couple of nice tongues, put them in a bag and hang them in the smoke house for 3 or 4 days. He would then bring them home, cook them, and pickle them. A sandwich of smoked/pickled cow tongue is to die for. It is even better than a regular cow tongue sandwich, which is outstanding in its own right. Comparing regular cow tongue to smoked/pickled cow tongue is like comparing regularly prepared calf brains with jellied calf brains. There’s just no comparison.

Back to professor Ruffin’s article. Let’s look at Ruffin’s description of a tongue sandwich. “…lay a big old flounder-sized beef tongue on a piece of bread and plop another piece of bread on top of it…and it’s just lolling there obscenely with its ends hanging out. I mean tongues don’t come square like lunch meat or round like baloney.” If Ruffin uses this same logic when he constructs, say, a ham sandwich—a ham you might realize it its pure form is a pretty sizable chunk of meat which does not fit nicely between two pieces of bread—he must surely be an embarrassment to those who might get caught eating with him in public. It is for this very reason that slicing was invented. Properly prepared cow tongues, even more so than ham, are very tender and easy to slice.

Ruffin also speaks disparagingly about octopus, another favorite of mine. I would rank octopus right up there with calamari (squid) both of which I’ve had many times in Spain. Perhaps Ruffin’s reference to lunchmeat and baloney is telling—he is just culinarily challenged. C’est domage.

He says, “Maybe my aversion to tongue lies in the fact that it’s hard to imagine eating something that you walk around with in your mouth day in and day out…” Would Ruffin eat a chunk of ham? Does he know what pigs do on their hams several times a day?

Ruffin then mentions that he “…rummaged around town a few days trying to find a tongue…but they’re not to be had here.” I will make two points in response to this statement. One, slightly more than two hours after I read Ruffin’s column, I drove to H.E.B. Pantry and purchased a cow tongue weighing 3.26 pounds for $2.49 per pound. (Ruffin reported that tongue cost from $3.49 to $4.99 a pound.) It was the 5th tongue that I have bought there in the last 3 weeks. It was right there in the meat counter next to the sweetbreads and beef heart. Second, are we talking about the same town? One day I decided to rummage around Huntsville. The entire rummage took only 3 hours and 37 minutes and included a stop at H.E.B., which Ruffin’s rummage obviously did not include.

Among the many other problems associated with Ruffin’s piece is the description of how to cook a tongue, purportedly obtained from Don the friendly butcher at Kroger. “Well first of all, you have to remove the skin from the top of it…” NO.NO.NO. One never removes the skin from the tongue before it is cooked. The preferred method of cooking is to boil the critter for about 3 hours and immediately plunge it into a vat of ice water for a few minutes. Then remove the skin. It comes right off.

I’m also curious where one finds “bones and gristle” in a cow tongue, or any other tongue for that matter. It is true that the hyoid bone is at the base of the human tongue and serves as an attachment point for a number of muscles, but in my long association with cow tongue I have never encountered either bone or gristle. The meat of a tongue is tender and smooth with nary a blemish of any kind.

About the only thing that Ruffin and I agree on with regard to beef tongue is that fudge sauce with tongue would be an incredible abomination. I’m sure we hold our similar opinion for different reasons.

Finally, Ruffin contemplates that “If angus tongues ever really caught on, the price of them would skyrocket. You’d have people running around in pastures at night whacking off tongues and blackmarketing (sic) the things.” I cannot condone anyone running around pastures at night whacking off anything.

In summary, Ruffin was wrong about the availability of tongue, wrong about the price, wrong about the texture, wrong about the cooking method, wrong about octopus, wrong about how to make a tongue sandwich, wrong about the time it takes to rummage Huntsville, and wrong about bone and gristle. Other than these few problems his column was OK.

If you, professor Ruffin would like to expand your eating repertoire beyond lunchmeat and baloney (which is itself a type of lunchmeat), e-mail me, we’ll set a time and I’ll fix you a tongue sandwich that will make your taste buds holler with delight.