You’re a linguist; where’s your tongue?

A tangled food story that started with a 5/25 quiz from Barbara Partee on Facebook:


Here’s a quiz – what’s this? I’m not about to eat it – it’s on the table only because the light is better here than on the counter near the sink. Volodja [Barbara’s husband Vladimir Borschev] cooked something today that we ate some of for dinner and then sliced the rest for future lunches. We bought it at the farm. (Our farm raises both meat and vegetables.) This was left after Volodja “cleaned” it after boiling it. Expectation Americans like me wouldn’t recognize it. Georgians and Armenians would, and probably a number of people who grew up on farms.

(Hat tip to Peter Salus, from many years ago, for the title.)

Fairly quickly, people identified the substance. Barbara exclaimed:

Tongue! That’s the skin Volodja took off after he boiled it. Tongue from our own Simple Gifts Farm!

(The skin is usable as dog chews. Barbara and Volodja have two dogs.)

A surprising digression, not about food. Triggered by a comment from Masha Esipova (a postdoc in linguistics at Princeton), exclaiming that tongue was such an appropriate thing to consume on Philologist Day. I was baffled by that, though Barbara and Volodja would not have been.

The key fact is that May 25th (the day Barbara posted her quiz) is Philologist Day in Russia (and Ukraine). Yes, an annual holiday to honor philologists!

I was bowled over. Here in the US, we have National Grammar Day (March 4th), which is not a celebration of syntactic research and the scholars who do it, but an occasion for peevers to condemn usages they dislike.

But back to tongue the food (as opposed to tongue the organ of speech or tongue ‘a language’; ambiguity is always with us). As it turned out, Barbara (very much to her surprise) had opened up a stream of food recollections. From these exchanges, involving three more linguists:

Bill Poser: My mother used to make tongue from time to time. It was beef tongue and I remember it as being rather salty. … Now that you’ve got me onto the topic of unusual foods, my mother also used to make chicken necks. I haven’t seen that in ages.

Arnold Zwicky: The overarching category for some of this is Poverty Food. Tongue is also a staple of American Jewish delis.

Bill Poser > Arnold Zwicky: My mother’s family became (relatively, not abjectly) poor once the Depression hit, so perhaps that is the origin of her making these dishes. By the time she fed them to me, she was no longer poor. That may be why I don’t remember her serving them after we moved when I was 12.

Arnold Zwicky > Bill Poser: Oh, the food practices quite frequently just become part of the food customs of the community. The Pa. Dutch food of my childhood (tongue, tripe, chicken innards, scrapple, pies filled with nothing but milk and/or molasses, food you could scavenge in the wild, like dandelion leaves and wild persimmons, etc.) was the food of extremely poor people, but it was our food and most of us loved it. I still do, though much of it is now, paradoxically, hard to get. Sometimes there are counterparts in other food communities: I’m *very* fond of menudo, and when I’m in Scotland, haggis is the local rough counterpart of scrapple.

Arnold Zwicky: Oh yes, lots of filling starches.

Arnold Zwicky: Tongue was a standard dish of my deeply farm-connected Pennsylvania childhood. Always beef tongue, I think.

Bill Poser: I think of tongue as farm-food too, which makes me wonder why my mother made it. She grew up in Boston and New York and had nothing to do with farming except for the summer during WWII when as part of the Women’s Land Army she picked strawberries. Farm food was definitely not her thing.

Susan Fischer > Arnold Zwicky: very much a deli delicacy, which I still love. I have a Chinese way of preparing it, with star anise and soy sauce …

Arnold Zwicky > Susan Fischer: Yes, I have happy recollections of tongue on rye sandwiches. But Chinesing it with star anise and soy sauce sounds *fantastic*. (I can’t actually use the recipe, since I can’t really cook any more, but I might enjoy it as an intellectual pleasure.)

Deli tongue. Before I follow up with Susan on Chinese tongue, a note from Katz’s Delicatessen (on Houston St. in lower Manhattan), whose website offers tongue, sliced and sold by the pound (not at all cheap), as in this overstuffed tongue sandwich:

(#2) (The customary dill pickle slivers are omitted in this photo, but they are of course also for sale)

Chinese tongue. We’re up to 5/26, and now we have this exchange between Susan Fischer and me:

Susan Fischer > Arnold Zwicky: boil the whole tongue in water for an hour, then peel and cook in water, soy sauce, star anise, and green onion for another two hours. I use essentially the same preparation, minus the peeling and initial cooking, for chicken (1 hour) and pork (2 hours), much less in the Instant Pot or other pressure cooker.

Arnold Zwicky > Susan Fischer: And then you slice it. And serve it with what kind of sauce? On what kind of starch (rice, bean thread, soba,…)?

Susan Fischer > Arnold Zwicky: I think of it as similar to char siu pork. Usually eat it as an appetizer, maybe with a little of the cooking liquid as a sauce, it could go with noodles or in a noodle soup. For the chicken or pork, I serve it over plain white rice, usually jasmine, with lots of cooking juice. Sometimes I throw in some carrots and/or fresh ginger.

Which brings us to char siu pork.  From the allrecipes site on “Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)”:

Char siu literally means fork burn/roast – char being fork (both noun and verb) and siu being burn/roast – after the traditional cooking method for the dish: long strips of seasoned boneless pork are skewered with long forks and placed in a covered oven or over a fire. This is best cooked over charcoal, but importantly to cook with indirect heat

More details:

use pork tenderloins; for the sauce: soy sauce, honey, ketchup, brown sugar, rice wine, hoisin sauce, red bean curd, five-spice powder: cut the pork into strips, marinate in the sauce, grill on an outdoor grill

The site’s decidedly Western presentation of the dish:

(#3) On rotini, with steamed broccoli on the side

Just imagine this with tongue slices instead of pork.

But wait! There’s more! Actually a lot more, in a variety of regional cuisines. But here are two, from Latin America and more from East Asia.

From the Simply Recipes site: “Beef Tacos de Lengua”, billed as:

Classic Mexican tacos de lengua, beef tongue which has been braised with garlic and onions, finely chopped, and served with salsa verde and avocados.


And then there’s beef tongue available at Japanese yakinaku or Korean barbeque restaurants. In an inventive Korean version, from the Melinda Strauss cooking site, a recipe for”Tongue Bulgogi” (bulgogi is marinated beef traditionally grilled or cooked in a cast iron skillet).

The marinade involves soy sauce, light brown sugar, sesame oil, mirin (or rice wine vinegar), gochujiang (or sriracha), sesame seeds, grated ginger, minced garlic, and finely chopped scallions.

Cooking and serving the bulgogi plain:


Or serving tongue bulgogi slices in a lettuce wrap with white rice and a garnish of sesame seeds, scallions and sriracha:


This stands in relationship to usual bulgogi roughly as Susan Fischer’s Chinese tongue does to char siu pork.

There’s much much more; recall Barbara Partee’s references to Georgians and Armenians above, and I haven’t even mentioned them. And only the most glancing reference to Latin American food, with just one Mexican standard dish, admirable though it is.

8 Responses to “You’re a linguist; where’s your tongue?”

  1. Margaret Winters Says:

    We were urban immigrant working class in Brooklyn, living with my grandparents (my mother’s parents) who were the actual immigrants. Tongue was certainly part of our diet, bought (not that often) at delicatessens – certainly urban Jewish food.

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    My sainted mother (dead 39 years this November) only made tongue once. We couldn’t eat it as she forgot to peel it, or perhaps didn’t know that you have to peel it. I can’t remember whether she peeled it and then we had it, or whether she abandoned the experiment. She was half Vermonter and half Cajun.

    Wen I go to Katz’s Delicatessen I have pastrami. With pickles, and a Dr Brown’s Diet Black Cherry soda.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    My mother used to serve boiled beef tongue very occasionally. I didn’t dislike it, as far as I can recall, but I wasn’t crazy about it.

    In the Boston area, where there is a large Portuguese-descended population, a tongue-based sausage called linguiça frequently shows up in sandwiches and as a pizza topping. (The pizza and sub shop within walking distance of our Gloucester house, where we frequently buy lunch when we’re visiting before we’ve moved in for the summer, makes a “submarine”-type sandwich called a linguiça bomb — linguiça, onions, peppers, and cheese, heated till the cheese melts — which is our invariable choice.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I thought of setting a timer, to see how long it look until Portuguese cuisine came up. There’s some lag in net responses, so it was about a day.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Oh, and of course Argentinean cuisine, from the land where beef is king: lengua a la vinagreta, for example.

  5. Bob Richmond Says:

    A prissy little old lady walked into a restaurant and asked the waiter what he recommended. “We have some very nice tongue today, ma’am.”

    “Eeuww – I couldn’t eat that! That’s been in a cow’s mouth!

    “You better just bring me a couple of soft-boiled eggs.”

  6. Sim Aberson Says:

    My mother made tongue often, and I loved it. I haven’t had it in ages.

    The ‘skin’ shown above has a term in Yiddish – schlung. I think that’s the perfect word to describe it.

  7. Tom Stoppard speaks to the meat | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] direction, from bodypart to that part used as food (as in leg of lamb), tongue the meat. See my 6/5/20 posting “You’re a linguist; where’s your […]

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