I remember my mother used to order tongue at the kosher delicatessen, and I always closed my eyes when she did so; I couldn’t watch as the butcher sliced it thin. Tongue’s a delicacy, she said, delicious, but I didn’t want to even imagine eating that kind of flesh—shouldn’t it be traif, un-kosher, the tongue, filled as it is with saliva, with sound, with breath? Filled with anything a cow might have to say in her brief life? I’d recently seen cows on a field trip my first-grade class took to a farm; they’d stood like boulders in the field, rocks with swishy tails and heads that swung toward you as you walked along the fence. Their mouths kept working and their eyes stayed on you forever until you turned out of sight into the pig barn.
I was the only one who raised my hand and answered correctly when the guide asked “What’s another word for ‘pigs?’” I raised my hand, and it looked absurd up there all by itself—how could I be the only one? He had told us to look for it, this word, before we even began the tour, and there it had been, big as a pig, on a plaque hanging in the doorway: Swine.
“Swine!” I said—the word unfamiliar to my tongue, but a little delicious too, swine, and I wanted to say it again, but already two boys and a girl were snickering behind my back, and no one else would look at me, as if I had done something shameful by answering the question correctly, by saying the word aloud and obviously taking such delight in both the word and my knowledge of it. “That’s correct,” the guide said, and I let my hand come to rest again at my side, gazed down at the dirty straw at my feet. The pigs, the swine, turned on their great bellies and snuffled their noses through the straw. They, I knew, really were traif, forbidden, but I didn’t know why; the guide told us that swine were really the cleanest animals in the farmyard, and unusually good-natured as long as you fed them well. The cows looked up again as we passed their field, and their tails slapped at the flies, and their great mouths kept chewing and chewing.
So when my mother orders tongue, sliced thin, I can’t watch, but later I do peek into the kitchen to spy her eating a tongue sandwich on rye, with mustard. The rye bread’s fresh, from Delicious Bakery, a little spongy in the middle, fragrant with caraway. My mother’s somehow by herself at the kitchen table, the sandwich cut in two trim halves, and she picks one half up with thumb and forefinger and brings it to her lips. She’s always a delicate eater, and the bite she takes is—how can I put it?—polite, not only to herself but to this cow’s tongue. She puts it back down and chews slowly, eyes closed, a little bit of mustard at the corner of her mouth, and I wait for her tongue to flick out and lick it off. And it does.
I wonder what wisdom is now on her own tongue, if the deep, watchful silence of cows will enter her, but she opens her eyes, sees me standing there and smiles. She offers the sandwich, the slices of tongue so pink between the warm, beige bread. Want some? she asks, her voice uncharacteristically sly, and I shriek, turn tail, and run.
Decades later, I’ll taste tongue for the first time, at Greengrass delicatessen in Manhattan, a few blocks from a transformed Central Park where the artist Christo has erected series of orange portals through which the masses stroll. I’m at a mini family reunion of sorts: my Aunt Barbara and my cousin Randi, and her daughter Erica who will be starting at NYU in the fall. And my cousin Ruthie, whom I’ve never met before, and I love her, in her bright red coat, her short blond hair, her stories that keep us laughing as we wait in the long Sunday-breakfast line, smashed up against the deli case. When we’re finally rushed to our table, the waiter plunks down the silverware, and he stands hovering, impatient. Ruthie orders tongue, sliced thin, on rye of course. When it arrives, I think it’s time. So when Ruthie offers a bite, as I knew she would—want some?—I nod and reach for it.
And of course, I find it scrumptious. It has just the right balance of salt mixed with smoke and all contained in a tantalizing texture that’s a cross between meat and butter. I didn’t know it would be so tender—who would have thought this muscle could be so delectable on my tongue and melt there, delicious?
My own tongue has always been problematic, a source of profound embarrassment. My naturopath calls it a “geographic” tongue: it has deep fissures and grooves all along its top and sides. It’s a fat tongue, not at all beautiful, and I rarely, even as a child, stuck it out, knowing how it would startle people, this pink monstrosity. But when I first French-kissed a boy I was surprised to feel how soft and sensitive, how sexy, even this ugly tongue could be in the dark. How alive both tongues were in the mouth! It was a sloppy kiss—he managed to get saliva even into my hair—but I still considered it a triumph.
I’ve noticed that my cat’s tongue can change character in an instant. Sometimes it’s rough as sandpaper, and other times soft as flannel. I’ve learned that cats are able to transform their tongues this way, extending and retracting the papillae to adjust the level of roughness needed for the task at hand. It seems extraordinary to me, to have such conscious bearing over an organ that seems as instinctively controlled as the heart.
My tongue seems so common in comparison, so humdrum. I can’t even do the common tricks that some of my fellow humans show off with their tongues. I had a friend who could twist her tongue upside down, or curl it into one narrow channel, barely a slit. Her tongue was pointed and smooth and little; a girl’s tongue that worked well when necessary to stick out in derision. And of course there were always those girls in Spanish class, rolling their r’s with a natural fluency that turned them into someone else, someone who could understand, and be understood, in this foreign tongue, something my own flat, clumsy tongue could never even approximate. When I grew older, at parties there was the inevitable gal (sometimes a shy, retiring type you would never suspect) who could tie a maraschino cherry stem into a knot with her tongue, much to the delight of the men in attendance who were, of course, wordlessly invited to imagine what other feats such a tongue could perform.
Ah, my flat, ordinary, ugly duckling tongue: it was never meant for such greatness. Even in meditation it’s not sure where to rest in the mouth, acting like a guest who’s arrived too early for the party, not sure where to sit. We go through our days with this slab of muscle in our mouths, the only muscle in our bodies not attached in some way to a bone, and it somehow manages to remain fairly inconspicuous, keeping the saliva at a nice equilibrium, contorting to make our breath turn into language. But sit down to watch that breath and suddenly the tongue startles out of its cranny, and you suddenly have this thing in your mouth that doesn’t know what to do with itself. It tries to loll nonchalantly against your cheeks. It shifts about, suddenly quite interested in that tiny gap between your front teeth or in the odd bump on the inside of your lower lip. When it finally settles down, it flattens against your lower palette, crouching there, waiting only for you to stir to life every few minutes and swallow.
As I kid, when I first heard the expression “speaking in tongues,” I thought it meant that you somehow grew extra tongues, or that they came flying at you on wings and licked you all over with words. As a Jewish girl from the Valley, whose only experience of tongue had occurred in the dim reaches of the local delicatessen—a girl whose own tongue was so craven and clumsy—I longed for such a vision, such an occupation of language. I wanted my tongue, normally so tied people often asked me cat got your tongue?, to be unraveled, blessed with the gift of divine speech. I watched myself in the mirror, stuck out my ugly tongue to see if it might have transformed overnight into something that could pass for God’s instrument.