first appeared in somewhat different form in "The Sweet and Sour Tongue" © 2000 by Leslie What
The mother, the father, and the daughter sat down to dinner. The mother had prepared a large tongue, pickled whole in a vinegar and garlic brine, then cooked and sliced through the middle into roughly even halves. One half was smothered in ginger sugar syrup and one half left without further adulteration, a dish known as sweet and sour tongue.
The tongue halves were refrigerated overnight and cut against the grain into one-quarter-inch thick pieces, with grey pink centers fading to a dark brown tinge around the edges. There was no salad, no bread, no rice, only tongue, fanned atop a white platter and separated by parsley sprigs. On one side was the sweet, on the other—the sour. Nobody especially liked tongue, but it was cheap and plentiful and traditional.
They were eating in the kitchen to avoid the uncomfortable formal feeling of the night before. "Dinner, anyone?" asked the mother. She held up the platter in one hand, held a large silver fork in the other, looking all too matronly in the linen polka dot apron she had inherited from her mother.
Dressed like that, she could have starred in a biscuit ad, thought the daughter.
"Which side do you want?" the mother said, eyes fixed on the daughter.
This being a showdown between the two women, taste mattered less than symbolism. The daughter would have preferred boiled chicken or Greek salad with toast points, but the mother had not asked for input before planning all their meals.
The daughter answered, "Which do you want me to have?" Not that she would listen to the mother's advice. She was thirty, but worried she looked older, even wearing her favorite Hawaiian print sundress and clever sandal flats with leather toe loops. She was on vacation from her job as a travel agent; this soon into the visit, she was wishing she had instead gone to Mazatlan, despite its being the rainy season there.
The mother was fifty and thought she looked younger. She has taken a week off work as a mediator in the juvenile justice system in order to spend time with her daughter. It was spring break—their busiest season, something she had mentioned in passing on more than one occasion, though perhaps not until after the daughter had scheduled the days off. "I don't know what you liked the last time you were here," the mother said. "If you told me, I'd know what to cook."
"I'll take the sweet," said the daughter. She felt edgy enough already.
"You always want the sweet," her mother said. "Like it should always be easy." She wished that she were better at hiding disappointment.
The father cleared his throat. They had agreed not to mention the daughter's recent divorce. The father fought his temptation to mention he had seen his ex-son-in-law that morning at the School of Dentistry. "Smells delicious," he said, trying to break what he perceived as a developing argument. His wife passed the plate to him. He poked through the meat to find the largest slice of sweet and largest slice of sour, his attempt to keep the platter looking even. He would have preferred dairy or vegetable soup. Tongue was spongy—air mixed with ritual. It was said to be nutritious, but who could tell?
The daughter took a bite of sweet tongue, her first taste of familiarity since coming home. Something about the kitchen looked different. Maybe it had been painted since the last time she visited. "Are those new drapes?" she asked. She wanted to say something nice but not too nice about the color. "Peachy!" she settled on at last.
"You never noticed?" said the mother. "It's been two years!" The mother knew how to squint and purse her lips into a scowl at the same time without making it look silly. "You never pay attention." She took a bite of sweet tongue to temper her anger.
The three sipped water and thought about how to speak to one another.
The father was the first to break the silence. No matter his feelings about tongue, he was still hungry. "Do you, uhm, have anything else to eat?" he asked.
"There's more tongue in the refrigerator," said the mother.
"Of course there is," the father answered. The mother always went crazy on tongue, bought the largest one at the butcher's, sometimes two. He knew better, and yet his stubborn nature made him ask, "Maybe I should bring home takeout tomorrow?"
The mother thrust the platter before his face. "Which do you prefer?" she asked with an air of certainty that let him know the matter was closed, that if he said one more word, a single word, any word—even "thanks," they would eat tongue tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that and after that, if he sighed or audibly breathed—if he frowned or clenched his fist—if a bead of sweat appeared above his lip—he would eat tongue for the rest of his natural life, beyond—if she could arrange it.
He told himself the food didn't really matter. Most important, they were together. But today had been such a long day, and since he was not on vacation like the women, he'd skipped lunch. A man had to eat; everyone knew that. He stared at the platter as if he could will it to change form. When nothing happened, he said, "A little of each, please."
The mother shook her head. "Typical," she said. "He kvetches and kvetches then can't make up his mind." The cold tongue made a sucking noise as she plied it from the platter.
There was something disconcerting about eating food that made noise when moved or touched, but everyone was polite enough not to comment.
"Thank you," said the father. The tongue was so tender that he could have just used his fork, but to impress his wife with his good manners, he picked up the knife.
The mother took a slice from the sour side for herself and her daughter and set down the platter. "You look tired," she told the daughter. "Have you put on more weight?"
"It's difficult," the daughter said, "not to eat too much when you have so much food here." Her mother always overfed her, then called her fat.
"You blame me for everything," her mother said between mouthfuls.
"She's not blaming dear," said the father. "It was a compliment. You're a good cook."
"Have some more tongue," the mother offered. Without waiting for the go-ahead, she served them all more slices: sweet for her daughter, and one of each for her husband. She took another slice for herself. Feeding them was the best way she knew to maintain sanity.
"Nobody makes tongue like you," the daughter said, wanting to say something nice, but maybe not too nice.
"And what exactly is that supposed to mean?"
The daughter chewed her lip, which reminded her of what she was eating. She tried not to think about it.
"It means nothing," her father said. He looked at his daughter like she was a puppy he was praising for going on the newspaper. "Tell her how good it is," he said. He took a huge forkful, filling his mouth so that when he spoke, the tongue squirted out between straight teeth. "Hmmm!" he proclaimed and in the next breath mumbled, "Amazing how long this stuff keeps before it goes bad!" That night, he would dream of chopped liver.
Fortunately for everyone, the mother didn't hear his last crack. She chewed on her own tongue. "I heard from the postman that the neighbor's girl got pregnant and took off with some Cuban she met at the bar. He mother is frantic, but they can't do anything because she's eighteen."
"And I always thought that girl had a good head on her shoulders" said the father. He took a bite from the sour side. "Serves them right for being permissive!"
The mother mixed a bite of sweet with a bite of sour. "That's one good thing we can say about our daughter," said the mother. "At least, she never got pregnant or ran off with any Cubans."
"There are many good things about our girl," said the father, who had switched back to the sweet side. He gravely tried to think up more nice things to say before too much time passed. He was a successful orthodontist, and as he looked at his daughter's even smile and her teeth, perfect from three years of braces, he blurted, "She has nice results. Beautiful results." He was proud of the work he had done. He could offer her no more than that. Not every father could say as much.
The daughter pushed her chair back from the table, stood, and reached for the platter. She got a large sour piece. And some say there are no accidents.
"This is awful," said the daughter, pleased with herself for finally speaking her truth.
Her mother looked crushed and ate a bite of sweet. "I'm sorry dear," she said. She pushed her plate forward. "Do you want some of mine instead?"
"Too late," the daughter answered. "It's got your germs. I already feel sick to my stomach." She was being childish, and why not? They treated her like a child. She needed friends right now, not parents, yet here she was! Stuck with the two of them instead of people she could count on.
The father was eating sour. "That's no way to talk to your mother," he said.
The mother finished her slice and said, "Please, everyone! Calm down. Let's just eat dinner in peace."
The sourness of the tongue made the daughter's lips pucker. She looked at the empty platter. "Did you say there was more in the refrigerator?" They had eaten a late lunch, but she felt as if she hadn't been fed in days.
Her father shoveled in another chunk of tongue. "Holy Schmoly get up and get it yourself," he said.
Her mother's eyes shone with sadness. "No, no, I'll get it," she said. "You're on vacation."
"Some vacation," said the daughter. Vacation was getting away, not going back, something her mother would know nothing about. She made a show of stomping off to push past the mother and fetch them all more food. The knife was still sharp enough to cut through bone; both the mother and the father gritted their perfectly symmetrical teeth to watch their daughter hold something this sharp while in such an emotional state.
The daughter could not best her mother's carving, so to cover the inequity of the slices, she scooped a spoonful of gelatinous sauce and plopped it in a big blob over the meat. It looked even more unappetizing than before. The daughter scraped it all off and pushed the sauce down the disposal. She deliberately mixed up all the pieces until one could no longer tell which was which. "Ready," she said and returned the platter to the table.
"Some people can't do anything right," the mother said. The daughter knew her mother's remarks had nothing to do with her carving skills. She covered her tongue with salt and pepper, her way of telling her mother that the dinner wasn't up to her taste.
The father meanwhile figured out how to tell which side was sour by the subtle change in color and refused to pass the tongue.
The daughter leapt to his side to snatch it away. She tried to grab a slice from her father's plate.
The father was too busy stuffing his mouth to stop her but managed to spear her thumb with his fork. "Stay away from my food," he growled.
The daughter shrieked. Though her skin was raw, there was no blood. "Ouch," she said.
"I can't believe you did that," said the mother.
"Are you talking to him or me?" asked the daughter. She did not expect an answer.
"It's not your place," said the father. "She made her bed, now she'll sleep alone in it."
"At least she made her bed," said the mother
The daughter looked to her mother, then her father, and said, "Mom! Dad!" She would not cry in front of them.
"Let's speak of it no more," said the mother.
"Fine" said the daughter.
"Fine," said the father.
"Now eat," the mother said.
There was really nothing else for them to do.
The daughter picked through the tongue. It appeared her father had eaten all the sour. Beggars couldn't be choosers. The daughter took the biggest piece left and scarfed it down before the platter had gone all the way around. "Delicious," she said. With this much food in her mouth, her enunciation was disgraceful.
"I'm glad you like it," said her mother, who developed a fetching blush.
Despite everything, the daughter was pleased to see her mother happy.
There were only three pieces of tongue left before dinner ended. The daughter could have eaten it all herself, but with the edge off her hunger, felt generous. She served sweet slices of tongue to her parents, and took the last for herself. She savored the pungent garlic taste and the sweet ginger bite, the tenderness of the flesh, the ritual and tradition and history of the meal. Her parents were getting older, and she was running out of time to make amends. "Thank you," she said to her mother. "Thank you for letting me come home."
"You're welcome," her mother said. "You can stay as long as you want."
"I know," said the daughter. "I know."
The mother smiled. She reached for the daughter's hand.
"I'll do the dishes," said the father.