i have no immediate qualms eating things that very clearly -are- of the animals from which they are so rudely excised. i require none of the abstraction of ‘the cut’ that turns cow into steak, pig into bacon, fish into filet, in order to conscience my meat eating, for i have a much more complex apparatus of indifference/selfishness/disavowal that achieves this placidity for me. there is, in my nascent carnivory, a sense that it is poor form or bad faith, or (my favorite) intellectual cowardice to shy away from the bits that trouble the meat/animal divide, and further, that if we’re going to get into this bloody business, we might as well nose to tail it and not be wasteful.
that said, i have not yet eaten a face (to play upon the smug vegetarian adage), and am not exactly champing at the bit to do so.
the nearest to so potentially dangerous an culinary/existential encounter i have come is eating within the space of two weeks two kinds of tongue salads. the first, a spicy pork tongue with cucumber salad, was the more jarring. not for its taste, which unlike its other offal associates, is not particularly strong, and in this case was doused in chili and coriander and black vinegar, but for its texture combined with its very identity as a tongue. for this tongue was just covered with taste buds. big ones, some of ’em. thus one was presented with the somewhat unsettling experience of taking into the mouth and masticating matter very hauntingly familiar, in both surface texture and in resemblance when chewed to the experience of accidentally biting down hard on one’s own tongue.
not lessened by its impossibility, i couldn’t help – when my taste buds brushed against structures so similar – imagining the tongue continuing to taste even as it was shredded into nonexistence, some ghost-swine tasting me from beyond the grave (who better positioned to haunt than the food animal, denied any proper grave by the fragmentation and dispersal of being made meat, and still further by digestion, partial incorporation, and defecation, then subject to the final indignity of disintegration amidst the sewage!) of force of spirit of the organ.
although such reveries made it difficult to finish the dish, it certainly was not a bad cold tongue salad, as far as i can tell. i would not hesitate to recommend to other diners, so inclined (available at Qing Hua, 1676 Lincoln – why i am talking about this somewhat disturbing peripheral dish when i could be raving about the best goddamn dumplings in town, i dare say best i’ve had ever, is beyond me. a difficult and macabre tendency of mine, i’m sure. but do go. the lamb and coriander dumplings, steamed, will confound and delight, i promise you).
considering the above, it might seem strange that i found myself so soon after sitting in a basement in Côte-des-Neiges decorated in stone and stuffed (taxidermied) animals as i assume a hunting lodge, with a plate of chopped beef tongue and pickles in mayonnaise in front of me. might, yes, but if you don’t know me that well, i suggest not allowing yourself to be too surprised, as you’ll only tire yourself over time. once the patterns are identified, i becomes rather predictable.
in this case, the texture was similar but not so alarming – chewy, and tasting mostly of beef. nothing remarkable, save that the name of the dish translated into “mother-in-law’s-tongue salad,” which i of course could not resist. also it was covered in mayonnaise, of which i invariably approve.
the meal of which the tongue was a part, an exercise in excess to be sure, was eaten at La Caverne (5184 Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges), a very charming little Russian restaurant in a neighbourhood i regularly chide myself for neglecting. i shan’t get into every aspect, but the food is honest, simple, and delicious. there are sufficient vegetarian options to make it worth at least one or two visits, although due to the prevalence of butter, yoghurt, sour cream and mayonnaise, the vegan options are near to nil, alas. the fish plate is a little scant for its price tag, although everything on it is quite delicious, and if you choose the mixed dumplings, cabbage rolls, etc. plate, you would do well to ask detailed questions if you hope to have a half a chance of matching up which steaming meat-filled pastries accord to what multi-syllabic entity on the menu, for future reference; something we did not do.
the borscht is delicious, and the stew that i remember perhaps as solana (alt. solyanka) was exactly the sort of warming and hearty fare to anchor one between the chilly poles of the winter without and the vial of ice-cold vodka close to hand. the stew was made with sausage, olives, pickles and i believe pickled mushrooms, and the vodka with vodka (moskovskaya, i think?); i heartily recommend both. indeed, for a long time i’d hoped to have some encounter with vodka that could elevate my “I Am Willing To Like It, But What Have I To Go On?” to a true attitude of “I Have Drunk Vodka, And Appreciated It, On Its Own Merits.” lo and behold, quel surprise, as accompaniment to an enormous Russian meal was just the encounter i needed, even if i didn’t have the pleasure of being surrounded by dilapidated soviet architecture.
the other item which i not only advise trying, but bemoan that it is not on the menu of every damn diner and dingey watering hole in town, is the bateau de fromage. because it’s really all that is good and pure in the world, ie: bread, eggs, cheese and butter. bread in somewhat the shape of a boat, stuffed with what we are told are three kinds of russian cheese (no more details than that), topped with a rawish egg and a pat of butter. it is served hot to the table, where you are instructed to mix the lot of it up into a gooey, melty, awesomeness, and tear apart however you see fit. cheese boat, man. it’s like an Eye of Sauron of heart-clogging deliciousness, and a better hangover breakfast/lunch/dinner i cannot imagine.
the Russians really know how to put a egg in it.