By Mark Wieser
Some parts of the bovine anatomy are hardly thought edible by many these days. Creating a tongue salad sandwich might be one of those. Tongue in our home was always a welcomed dish. Sometimes, even as a sandwich. There were many school day mornings I was sent off with a tongue salad sandwich for lunch. I probably can count on one hand the number of times I actually ate in the school’s lunchroom over my 12 years. I thought the food was unflavored and disgusting. One could easily see clear through the bottled milk supplied. And, even years later, while teaching at my old Alma Mater the hamburger paddies were still being made of soybeans. No wonder so many students ate off campus! The thought of tongue and those sandwiches have receded deep into my memory, however the thought of eating tongue simply cannot be forgotten. Believe it or not, in the early ‘80s it was still possible to find some school club raising money by selling tongue salad sandwiches at a Billies’ Friday night football game. Imagine the possibility of that being permitted today – the local health officials would have a cow.
Buying a fresh calf tongue from our local Red & White grocery store was once upon a time not a big deal. In fact, they were readily available in all the mom and pop groceries around town. We had a lot of those small groceries in the ‘50s. Sadly they’re all gone today. They simply could not compete with the growing demands of today’s consumers not to mention the selections available in large chain supermarkets. This day, even here, we expect our grocery to carry everything for which we once made a day of it to drive to San Antonio to get.
In those days, each small grocery typically got their meats locally—especially beef. Usually, at the rear of these stores was the meat department, complete with a butcher block, racks of saws hanging from the ceiling and a large walk-in cooler. There a customer could buy anything one saw displayed in the huge refrigerated white display counter or ask if something was available. Most stores were supplied by a local slaughterhouse—Henke’s. They purchased beef on the hoof at the auction rings—not typically the priciest and best quality or best-looking beef. These were slaughtered daily at a place a little ways northeast of town. Henke’s also had their own meat markets on Main and perhaps supplied a number of local groceries.
Visiting the meat department was a real treat. Here your favorite butcher sawed large carcasses into whatever size steak one desired. Asking to have one’s steak cut to a 1 ½ inch or thicker raised many an eyebrow in those days. I can still hear the sounds of a hand saw or band saw cutting steaks and every moment it struck and sawed through bone. A special steel bone dust scraper was used to rake the ground bone clean before weighing. He then wrapped your cut in butcher paper with all the finesse of a fine surgeon—something one could never repeat at home.
One could even be given permission to peek into their coolers and see half carcasses of beef, hams, and other meats as they were being chilled. We had a lot of faith that they maintained necessary sanitation in those days, and nothing was wasted of those animals they had purchased. A tongue was just one of a remarkable array of offal that came with each carcass. And their supply was always limited depending upon how many carcasses they had purchased.
My mom purchased a tongue every now and then. A tongue salad was as common as tuna fish, but not as simple to prepare. Tongues didn’t come in a can. Most Americans today scoff at the thought of eating tongue yet may think nothing of having tripas (small intestines) as a component in a taco. Maybe it seems more exotic in Spanish, then again, perhaps many simply don’t know what’s in them. In some cultures, offal is considered taboo, but not, apparently, among the German settlers who ventured into the Hill Country. Others consider them delicacies. Thus, foie gras, pâté and sweetbread are regarded as gourmet foods and not given a second thought as we experience the Avant-Garde to be fashionable. Times change. Today, some can bring premium prices for which our credit cards have no qualms.
Tongues need a lengthy cooking time to become tender. It is not the most glamorous organ to work with, but well worth the time required. For those watching their weight they should know that 1 oz of tongue contains 64 calories coming from 66% fat, 7% carbs, and 27% protein. That 1 oz breaks down into 10% Saturated Fat and 8% cholesterol. Perhaps that is why we did not have it often but relished it every time.
Some sources maintain the creation of a tongue salad is rather recent. They suggest that Lucien Olivier, a Moscow chef of Belgian and French descent, created the first tongue salad in the 1860s. His included caviar and smoked duck as well. He referred to it as a “Russian salad.” So, secret did he keep his recipe that he flamboyantly insisted it could not be revealed until his death in 1883. Then it was misplaced until 2008, but it was finally revealed that his secret ingredient was none other but tongue.
Tongue remained popular throughout 19th and early 20th century America. In areas of rural America, it had remained popular well into the 1950s. Then, its popularly began to wane—rapidly. Tongue has fallen to such lows that many American cookbooks published after 1950 no longer list tongue recipes. I had a difficult time even finding a mention in my Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson. It is not a cheap book costing me $49.95 twenty years ago. It has many suggestions for preparing ants, making bird nest soup, and eating iguanas, but a mere footnote about tongue.
We seem to lag behind times here. (My latest edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book is the 12th edition, published in 1978 and still has the same recipe found in its 6th edition of 1948.) So, perhaps, we may not be as politically correct as the rest of the country or there is simply too much nostalgia involved in keeping these recipes around. Recipes or not, my research found that HEB sells about 3 cases of tongue per week – that’s 36! The Fredericksburg Lockers, remarkedly, sells about 3 or 4 tongues a year. Walmart indicated they had never heard of calf tongues, not sure if I actually spoke with the meat department. At Dutchman’s Market, 90% of customers who have their cattle butchered there always take their tongue along with the rest of the meat. Admittedly, the delicacy of Lengua Tacos is a huge part of this business, but it looks like some of us old Germans are still eating tongue here too.
To prepare the tongue for a Warm Entrée, a Salad, or for Sandwiches
My mother prepared tongue seasoned simply with onion, salt and pepper. Placed in a large pot it was covered with water. A bay leaf was added then covered and permitted to simmer for about 2 ½ to 3 hours. I can still see an image of her spearing it with a large fork when done and lifting it from its bath and placing in on a platter to cool. For a short while a steady stream of steam spewed forth from an item that looked as if it rivaled “The Thing”—a movie in the ‘50s that terrorized us all. The cooking had loosened its outer skin which when cool enough to handle one simply peeled, removed it and fed it to dog. Then the root or stem, usually a horrible mess of veins, flesh and tangled ends of muscle. This was trimmed and removed to make as nice of a presentation as possible.
Ingredients to Prepare for a Sandwich or Salad.
Dice the tongue into small cubes.
½ cup finely chopped celery
¼ tsp black pepper
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 ripe diced tomato
¼ cup mayonnaise
½ small onion, diced
1 tbsp pimiento
1 tbsp diced pickles
½ dozen green olive
Use home-baked bread, if possible. (Dietz’s Bakery and Fredericksburg Bakery) made the perfect breads for sandwiches. Spread ample amounts of mayonnaise on both the top and bottom slices. Top each with crisp lettuce leaves. Spread the mixture generously on one of the slices, fold and wrap in wax paper until ready to eat. OK, a plastic zip-lock will work. Chill until consuming, if possible.
Preparation for a Tongue Salad:
Essentially the same as above, chill and serve on a base of lettuce on a chilled serving dish.
Basic Ingredients for preparing the entrée
Strain the liquid in which the tongue was boiled to remove the lemon seeds and peelings. Instead of cutting the tongue into cubes cut the tongue into 3/8-inch-thick slices. Add initial broth to cover and bring to a simmer.
½ tbsp butter
diced medium white onion
juice of one lemon
½ tsp sugar
1 bay leaf
Season with salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp flour to thicken
Return to the skillet and add all the remaining seasonings. Bring to a simmer for about ¼ hour—stirring occasionally. If your sauce looks too thin simply thicken with flour.
Serve hot in a large deep dish bowl accompanied with mashed or small whole boiled potatoes.