Monday
Nov032014

The Cow's Tongue

Wyatt Williams


 

We ate a cow's tongue for our last meal. The preparation required six hours of work, mostly unattended. My wife seasoned a brine in the braising pot, where the tongue simmered for three hours. I set a mixture of hickory and apple wood chunks to smoke at two hundred and seven degrees in our ceramic pit in the backyard, where the tongue cooked for another two hours. While resting the tongue for the final hour in a foil-wrapped aluminum pan, I pureed a pound of boiled sunchokes into a soft spread while my wife picked squash blossoms from the garden. This was to be a virtuous, pleasant meal; I did not expect it to be our last. I've found that tender, smoky meat inspires optimism in the world. That night, I looked at my wife and almost thought she was beautiful.

We have not always been at odds. I remember seeing her in a restaurant, Pernod, carrying a small silver tray with two martinis sweating in cold glasses. This was eleven years ago, when a good restaurant in the Bywater had still been mostly unheard of. I remember desperately wanting her black dress on the floor of my bedroom, torn if it had to be, my mouth tasting her white skin. Her complexion was creamy, a bit sweet. I noticed the way she barely seemed to touch the ground, floating from table to table. Her hair was still long then; she wore it in a braided rope that pointed at her waistline. Her face possessed an effortless ability to introduce her self. That night, I looked at the bar and found her looking back at me. I looked at the pass and found her glancing at me over the plates. I found out later that she was the manager, that the chef had taped a picture of me in the kitchen alongside the two other restaurant critics in town, told everyone to study our faces and immediately alert him if any of us hacks walked in the door.

I knew that it was a mistake to encourage her to leave her position at the restaurant—that she would be unhappy without the work she did well—but I liked the idea of supporting a woman. I must admit I knew my support would make it a little harder for her to leave. So I told her that she would be my researcher, that we could share my job and all of the pleasures of it, though I never really expected her to work.

We disagreed when my career changed directions a few years ago. After a decade of writing reviews for a daily paper, a men's magazine offered me a contract to be their offal critic. I'll admit it sounded curious to me, too, at first—a monthly column about eating organ meat?—but the publisher joked with me that men's magazines have always been about organs. We laughed and then I signed the contract.

I guess it began with the job change. I didn't consult her about the subject of the column. Why would I? Didn't she know she was just assisting? When I insisted that we celebrate with champagne that night, I noticed something change in her. Her mouth began to form a word and then it stopped, half-formed and unsaid. Then she put the champagne flute where the word would have been.

Other times, words would come out of her mouth with no context or warning, apropos of nothing. "I have no interest in this butcher's trash," she said one afternoon while we were testing a chopped liver and caul fat recipe. She walked out of the front door, her liver-stained apron still tied around her waist. She didn't come back for twenty-seven hours.

When we talked about the column, I tried to argue for the skill of the matter, about the technique and vision it requires to find beauty in a thymus gland. After the nights I would order cervelle de veau or ris d'agneau or even just a torta lengua at the taqueria, she would complain about the metallic tang on my lips. "I feel like I'm kissing that little cow's brain!" she told me sometime last year. I was dubious; she'd never had a particular skill for identifying flavor before.

In any case, the vogue for offal only lasted a couple of years. I saw it before anyone else. The way a chef would write a plate of skewered and grilled chicken hearts into his menu, it was the way a shopkeep stocks hats from three seasons ago for rubes. When my editor at the men's magazine wrote me to say my column would be "on hold," I had already spent four months preparing pitches for new column concepts. I had predicted his decision, but not his attitude. He barely entertained my suggestions. Apparently, I was as out of fashion as the offal.

My last email to him read, "Sure, just toss me aside with the pig intestines." He never responded. The next month's issue contained a new column from a critic in Charleston, a man I had met briefly at a wine festival. The theme would be crudo. "A perfect sliver of sashimi reminds me of nothing more than a woman's bare flesh," he wrote. I should have known.

As long as I can remember, I have had occasional periods of mental blankness. Do you know the difference between a chalkboard with words written on it and a chalkboard rubbed with a dry eraser and a chalkboard that has been cleaned with a wet rag? My mind has moments like the latter, the fresh deep blank blackness of wet chalkboard. I can still see and move and function but my interior is wet and blank. I have tried to control these episodes, but doctors and medications are no use. Instead, I have tried to quantify the exact time each episode lasts, to control it through understanding it. I keep a leather journal where I write down the details of each episode. I had a blank moment like that after I read that crudo column. After the episode ended, I wrote an entry in my journal that reads, "BLANK EPISODE, WIFE SPEAKING, UNCLEAR WHAT SAYING, 49 HOURS."

Instead of looking for another magazine gig, I resolved to write a book with a kind of plain and broad commercial appeal. With the assistance of a smart agent, I received a modest advance for a proposal about only eating whole animals for a year. His letter to the publishers who bid on my proposal included some line about it being an "elegant expansion of the celebrated magazine column." According to my agent, that was the line that caught my publisher's eye. The only people more out of touch than magazine editors are book publishers.

My wife, again feeling excluded from my career, developed her own plan. She told me she would open a wine shop on Magazine Street next year. She said she wouldn't need my help running it, just my name to help secure the lease. How could I not be encouraging? Once a month, we would order a case from a distributor I knew and drink until we couldn't see straight while she scribbled what she called "tasting notes" into a little notebook.

For months, I continued my encouragement in the bland, general way that a husband is meant to be encouraging, though I knew another wine shop on Magazine Street was no good. Anyone, my wife excluded apparently, could see Magazine Street had enough wine shops already. It was doubtful another would survive. My enthusiasm eventually waned. I believe I finally told her what I thought about it, though I don't remember what I said exactly. We were in the midst of that little routine, six open bottles on the kitchen table, pretending to debate the qualities of one Sancerre and another. How could I remember the exact phrasing in that kind of state? Whatever I said, she threw her glass of wine in my face. Maybe I told her that she was a useless cunt? I'm not sure. She never brought up the wine shop again.

I spent my advance from the book proposal on two large deep freezers and a stainless steel butcher's table large enough to hold the broad side of a cow. We had the whole arrangement installed in the garage. A farm split a cow in half for us, the two sides fit exactly into the two freezers. We held a small party for the ribs.

Last night, we decided to eat the cow's tongue. As we sat down at the table, I finally told her I'd known that asking her to work with me had been a mistake, that we had never really been able to work together and we probably never would. "I should have acknowledged it at the time," I said.

Her face turned red and she opened her mouth very slightly. I recognized this face, it was the one that happens when she is unable to form her words. She was silent for a few seconds, as I expected, before she let out a small sound. It wasn't a yell or a growl or a scream. It sounded like a high-pitched hissing of air. She was angry, she said. She wasn't angry for my not having spoken up then, she was angry that I presumed to have understood the situation better before her. She was angry that I always had to be the critic in the room, the guy that knew a little more than everybody else. I remember her using the word "man-splaining."

The tenderness of the cow's tongue that night made me more optimistic. I thought I could still say something that would fix our problem.

"This tongue," I said, "Reminds me of the way you used to kiss me."

I knew it was a morbid joke, but there had been a time when my morbid humor amused her.

"I think you would like people more if you could eat them," she said.

"Excuse me?"

"I think you'd like me better if you could just poach my brain in black butter."

I started to say something, so she paused, but then I paused, too.

"How do you think my brain would taste? Would it be tender enough for you?"

"I—"

"No, shut up. You would say, 'Like soft scrambled eggs,'" she said, mocking an accent I don't have and kissing her fingers. She was drunk. "Don't you just wish you could trim my tough parts for the braising pot? Would it be a slow roast for my fatty lumps? I bet you'd eat my ass if it was finished with the right salt. I think you'd look at me an entirely different way if you could see the lines where the butcher would cut."

I remember her laughing and spilling her wine after saying this.

This morning, I found her kneeling on the kitchen floor with her head in the oven, the pilot light out, the whole room filling with gas. I'd pulled her out and slapped her face again and again, slapped her until I could see that her stupid purple face was still breathing. I remember trying and failing to make my hand stop. When I did stop hitting her, she didn't say anything. I could see black bruises already beginning to bloom on her cheeks. We sat on the floor of the kitchen, close but not touching. At some point, she stood up and walked out the house. I didn't try to stop her.

I continued sitting in the kitchen for some time. I am not sure what day was yesterday. I believe I have been in one of my blank states. At some point this evening, I became aware of a smell. I followed my nose, my nose that has always led me in the right direction, to the garage. Someone, her I suppose, had unplugged the deep freezers and left the doors propped open. In the summer heat, the bugs have been thriving on the beef. They are here in thick clouds. Both sides of the cow have been ruined. I suppose someone will have to clean this up.