"The Sweet and Sour Tongue" first appeared in somewhat different form in Leslie's story collection
"The Sweet and Sour Tongue"
© 2000 by Leslie What
The mother, the father, and the daughter sat down to dinner. The mother had prepared tongue, pickled whole in a vinegar garlic brine, then cooked and cut in half. One half was smothered in a ginger and sugar syrup and one half left without further adulteration, a dish known as sweet and sour tongue.
The tongue had been refrigerated overnight. There was no salad, no bread, no rice, only tongue, sliced against the grain and arranged like two fans over a white platter. Above was the sweet, below, the sour. Each slice was cut approximately one-quarter of an inch thick, pink in the center, with a reddish brown tinge around the edge.
Nobody especially liked tongue, but it was cheap and plentiful, besides traditional.
They were eating in the kitchen because the mother hoped to avoid the uncomfortable formal feeling of the night before. "Dinner, anyone?" asked the mother. She held up the platter in one hand, a large silver fork in the other and looked 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, maybe with toast points, but the mother had not asked her opinion before planning all their meals.
The daughter answered, "Which do you want me to have?" Not that she planned to listen to her mother's advice. She was thirty, but worried she looked older, even in her Hawaiian print sundress and clever sandals with leather toe loops. She was on vacation from her job as a travel agent; this far into the visit, she was wishing she had 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, just 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, who felt edgy enough already.
"You always want the sweet," her mother said. "Like it should always be easy." She wished she were better at hiding disappointment.
The father cleared his throat. They had agreed not to mention the daughter's recent divorce; the father had withstood his temptation to mention having seen his ex-son-in-law at the School of Dentistry. "Smells delicious," he said, trying to break what he perceived as a developing pattern. His wife passed the plate to him, and he took one slice of sweet and one slice of sour in an attempt to keep the platter even. He did not hate tongue, not entirely, but would have preferred dairy or vegetable soup. Tongue was spongy, the lightness of air mixed with the heaviness of 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. "Are those new drapes?" she asked. Something about the kitchen looked different. Maybe it had been painted since the last time she visited. She wanted to say something nice about the color. "Peachy!" she settled on at last.
"You never noticed the drapes?" said the mother. "It's been two years!" She knew how to squint and purse her lips into a scowl at the same time without making it look silly.
"That's what's wrong with you? You never pay attention."
The mother, the father, and the daughter sipped their water and chewed their tongue and thought about what they could say to keep emotions in check.
The father was the first to break the silence. No matter his feelings about tongue, he was still hungry. "Don't you have something else to eat?" he said.
"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 so there would be enough for leftovers, and leftovers of the leftovers. He knew better, yet his stubborn nature made him ask, "You want tomorrow, maybe I should cook?"
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, they would eat tongue tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day 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, or beyond that, if she could arrange it.
He told himself the food didn't really matter. Most important, they were together. But today had been a long day, and since he was not on vacation like the women, he'd gotten no snacks. 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."
The mother shook her head. "Typical," she said. "He bitches and bitches then can't make up his mind." The cold tongue made a sucking noise as she pulled 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 please 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, forcing a smile, "not to eat too much when you have such good 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 and without waiting for the go-ahead, dished them each two slices: sweet for her daughter, and one of each for her husband. She took a small slice for herself to make it look like she was sacrificing her pleasure for theirs.
"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 shuddered and 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 her for going on the newspaper. "Tell her how good it is," he said in a singsong voice. He took a huge forkful. "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 the nuance of his last crack. She thoughtfully chewed on her own tongue. "I heard from the postman that the neighbor's girl got pregnant and took off with some Cuban guy she met at the bar. He mother is frantic, but they can't do anything because she's eighteen."
"Can you believe it?" 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 Cuban guys."
"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 sour piece. And some say there are no accidents.
"This is awful," said the daughter, rather pleased to finally be speaking her mind.
Her mother looked crushed and ate a bite of sweet. "I'm sorry dear," she said. She offered her plate. "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. He said, "That's no way to talk to your mother!"
The mother finished her slice and said, "Dayenu! 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. "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 fetch them all more food. The knife was still sharp enough to cut through bone; both the mother and the father gritted their 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 her carving, she scooped up a spoonful of gelatinous sauce and tried to drizzle it across the center. The sauce dropped off the spoon in a big blob. The daughter gave up, and scraped it off, and pushed the sauce down the disposal. She deliberately mixed up all the pieces until she could no longer tell which was which.
"Ready," she said and brought back 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 a thick layer of 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 look of the spices 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. He was too busy stuffing his mouth to stop her but managed to spear her thumb with his fork. "Stay away from my food," he screamed.
"Ouch!" The daughter shrieked. Though her skin was raw, there was no blood.
"I can't believe you did that," said the mother.
"You can't believe who did what?" asked the daughter. "Are you talking to him or me?" 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."
The daughter looked to her mother and said, "Mom!" 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 remaining 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 three pieces 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 love and work 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.