The small terra-cotta cazuela was heaving with glistening duck tongues. I let out a quiet sigh. I didn’t want my dining companion, who also writes about food, to pick up on my discomfort.
Macellaio had been open for a few weeks at this point. The restaurant, from Lucia owners David and Jennifer Uygur, specializes in house-made charcuterie, spongy loafs of freshly baked bread, and amari-centric drinks. We were perched at the 19-person bar nursing fizzy cocktails. Our mutual delight to be trying a new restaurant swelled into an ordering frenzy.
“White bean aligot!”
“Grilled tomato-rubbed bread with sobrassada and honeycomb!”
Somewhere in there, my friend had ordered duck tongue confit with onion dip. I don’t remember this happening. But the proof was irrefutable; I was staring down at it.
The tongues, which came from D’artagnan, were cured for a day in salt and then cooked slowly in their own fat before being sous vide, with thyme and black pepper, until tender. The meat was then sautéed in a pan with a pinch of crushed garlic and more thyme.
“Admittedly it’s just making use of the entire animal,” says chef-owner David Uygur. “I’ve cooked all the tongues. When we opened Lucia I put beef tongue on the menu, pork tongue, head cheese, and veal tongue.”
My discomfort over this dish didn’t come from a squeamish place. Growing up, my parents encouraged me and my sisters to pick anything we wanted off the menu when we dined out as a family—which was often, as my father worked in the restaurant industry. Myoglobin-dripping prime rib, sautéed frog legs, and butter-soaked mussels were merely notches on the belt of my seven-year-old palate. This freedom to choose evolved into an unending adult curiosity and insatiable desire to try everything. I don’t get squeamish.
My hesitation, rather, was superficial and emotional. A memory that, when dining out and presented with duck, I’ve managed to crumple up like an ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt and shove into the depths of my right frontal cortex. Or wherever it is that you bury such things. But sometimes the recollection makes its way to the surface and I falter. (This is why you’re supposed to just burn the damn t-shirt, right?)
One of my earliest, and fondest, childhood memories is feeding the mallard ducks at Rochester Municipal Park in Rochester, Michigan. I loved the way the birds glided along the surface of the pond. I loved the way the male’s heads were emerald green and iridescent. And I really loved the way the yellow and brown ducklings cuddled together, like a mound of puffballs, on the water’s edge.
My sisters and I took tiny fistfuls of Wonder Bread and oyster crackers and tossed the starches into the pond. The feeding frenzy was exhilarating —a dozen feathery birds splashing and squawking. We’d ration the bread and make sure the smaller, weaker ducks, incapable of putting up a noble fight, got their fair share, too. We felt dutiful.
(We know now that you’re not supposed to feed bread to ducks, but this was the early ‘90s—an era when it was acceptable to follow the food pyramid as a nutritional guide and smoke inside restaurants.)
Our mom took us to the park every week, and on some weeks, every day. The plunging metal slide was a hit, as was the gravel pit where we’d dig for rogue cigarette butts. But the ducks were the main attraction. They were the first animals I remember falling in love with.
As I stared down at the dewy tongues—about two-inches long and a sort of grayish hue resembling the flesh of a bridge troll—I pushed the feathery ducks of Rochester Municipal Park out of the pond they so effortlessly swam in, and into a dark crevasse of my brain.
Our server explained that a bone ran through the center of the avian tongues; I picked one up and slid it past my lips, closed my teeth around the flesh, and slowly removed the osseous spear. The meat was tender and fatty with a subtle smack of garlic and thyme. I ate another. And then another. And then another-another.
The dish is meant to be eaten with your fingers and comes with a side of fried garlic and shallot aioli for dipping.
A pile of tiny bones soon sat next to the cazuela. One lone, tender, tongue remained. My friend had moved on to a dense slice of grilled bread, topped with rich sobrasada and sticky honeycomb. So, I did the honors.
As I placed the last bone down on the stack, I felt a sense of contentment.
The dish was simple. The execution was faultless. And the pleasure it supplied was powerful enough to temporarily mute the faint quack forcing its way through my consciousness.