Cow Tongue

When Cow Tongue Was an Essential Thanksgiving Ingredient
It made American pies rich and indulgent.

"While families today might argue about whether to top their sweet potatoes with marshmallows or serve green beans with a mushroom-soup membrane, colonial cooks had different expectations for their Thanksgiving recipes. For one, pies were not just dessert. Meaty-yet-sweet mince pies, which descended from medieval European pies, held a special place at the Thanksgiving table. And one key ingredient of these indulgent pastries is long-forgotten: cow tongue.

"One of the most popular pastry coffyn fillings, however, was, mincemeat: a combination of finely chopped and cooked meat, sweeter ingredients such as apples, currants, and raisins, alcohol such as brandy, and beef fat (suet). Part of mincemeat’s popularity came from its function as a useful way to repurpose leftover or unused ingredients, from vegetables to meat scraps, such as offal or organ meats. Cooks could prepare the pies in advance, and after a hearty mincemeat dinner or breakfast (mince meat could be eaten any time of day), farmers could carry their leftovers into the field...

"How could an organ meat be considered integral to a festive Thanksgiving pie, and so rich and tasty that it tested Puritan sensibilities? According to food scholar Bruce Kraig, author of A Rich and Fertile Land: A History of Food in America, fresh tongue (as opposed to pickled tongue, as it was often eaten) offered a rich fattiness to mince pies. Similar to cow feet, tongue is rich in collagen and, when cooked for a long time, creates a tender and gelatinous structure and an unctuous, mouth-coating texture. Combined with sugar, alcohol, and dried fruits, the hefty pie was a true bounty.

"But with all that flavor, 'neet’s tongue' and 'neet’s fee'” eventually disappeared from the Thanksgiving table. According to Kraig, it’s possible that children started distancing themselves from old tastes and traditions. As wealth increased, 'muscle meats' also became more popular, until the 'meat' in mince meat was merely a vestige."

alice's picture

Interesting to hear. I know that in the UK tongue was often preserved (canned) and sliced for sandwich meat back in the day (thanks Arthur Ransome, a children's author with great details about early twentieth century ways ordinary people ate in England).

It's a seasonal thing to kill beast in the beginning of winter over here as beasts often winter inside barns since the grass is not growing because of light limitation, and obviously fodder has to be hauled. So it makes sense to butcher whichever beasts are not worth keeping until the following year. So fresh organ meats at this time of year make complete sense. Super nutritious as well, the traditional foods mams would point out, being rich in minerals and the fat soluble vitamins.

David Trammel's picture

I don't know why people always seem to cut the fatty tissue off of their meats, like steaks. I love the smooth taste of a piece of cooked fat as it melts on my tongue and in moderation I think its supposed to be good for you too. Guess its cheaper to build up muscle tissue with bad feed and too many drugs, than to let an animal get a decent layer of fat on themselves. Probably the diet fad industry has a good portion of the blame too.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I find it odd that the article seems to refer to tongue as fatty. Collagen ≠ fat. Collagen is protein. Tongue is extremely lean, yet very tender, at least as my mother cooked it. I think she pressure cooked it, but perhaps only boiled in a covered pot with onion and spices.

I grew up with dark brown, sweetly spiced mince meat pies at Christmas, always made by my grandmother, the one who grew up on a potato farm and spent the beginning years of her married life in a two-room house, one room for general living, one room for the storage of food, mostly wheat, as she and her husband were relatively prosperous tenant farmers, able to get out the more lucrative wheat crop, as opposed to potatoes.

I'm not sure what meat was in Grandma's mincemeat pie. I'm sure it was some bit of beef, but not much. She always made two pies, both of them comically marked with a "T" for the venting of steam. She always laughed, pointing to the pies, repeating for me that the first "T" was for 'tis meat, while the second "T" was for 'tain't meat, and, of course the second was filled with fruits with no animal bits.

I mostly was sent to school with cheese sandwhiches, which was an oddity among my school mates at the time. Cheese had not yet arisen to the common place it now has in the USAmerican diet. When not cheese, it was either bologna, or tongue. I dreaded having tongue. One of my parents made the sandwiches and neither one would strip the "skin", the tastebuds, off for me. I had an aversion to that. In reality, tongue makes an easily chewed, fine textured steak. I don't know why it would be considered and organ, either. Obviously it is a muscle.

The fellow who towed straw into the city for my orchard mulching has a cattle farm and sells at he nearby farmers market (Schlafly Brewery parking lot for those in St. Louis). He sells tongue cheaper than any other cut. It is a good deal. But, yeah, tongue is not a cut to waste.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I had to look this up, but the term "neatsfoot oil" came to mind, even though I did not know what it is. Turns out neet/neat is old English for cow. And neetsfoot oil (fat from the lower leg and foot) is different that the fat in the rest of the cow because it is liquid at room temperature. For the cow, that makes metabolism in the extremities possible in cold weather.

I know that's a real tangent to the discussion, there may be kitchen or first aid applications to know that.

I appreciate that mince meat pie represents using up this and that, or the leftovers of other meals. A lot of practical cooking is like that.

alice's picture

Fascinating stuff to read. I guess tongue is classed as offal because of the butchering process? Here in the UK everything that is cut off the carcass at slaughter is called offal so includes oxtail, liver, kidneys, heart, etc and I am presuming tongue too. Great to know it has steak like texture though, that sounds good. If you want the offal you have to hang around near the abbatoir on the day you drop the beast off and collect the offal a few hours later. Then the main body of the animal is processed for you to pick up 2-3 weeks later. We have a lot of laws about slaughtering anything bigger than a chicken, a legacy of Mad Cow (the moral of which imo is "don't feed ground up cow to your cows, it massively increases the likelihoog of prion disease"), another thing to thank the crazy industrial ag folks for.