“Ox tongue for lunch!” Annie calls in from her kitchen in Suva, Fiji. Early afternoon light filters in through the rose-pink shades, casting the whole room in a peachy glow. “Would you like to join?”
While I am a proud vegetarian in the states, I have a policy of accepting any food that is offered to me while I travel. Normally I can pull this off with grace. Chicken curry? No problem. A whole fried fish on my plate? Sure thing, as long as I can leave the delicate head and intestines for my host.
My stomach turns, though, at the thought of an ox tongue in my mouth. Would chewing be like kissing an ox? I am conscious of the presence of my own tongue, which feels five times heavier than usual.
“Maybe in a bit,” I manage. “I have to work up my courage first.”
I pick my way through a bowl of green beans and rice, slipping into memory.
December 2013: my girlfriend and I take a break from writing our theses to venture out to Brookline, Massachusetts for a book talk. The author: Sue Monk Kidd.
I loved The Secret Life of Bees; my partner did not. When I first read the book in middle school, I took to squeezing honey straight from the bottle into my mouth, if only to savor the sweetness of how it was made. My girlfriend ripped through The Secret Life of Bees in half a day over winter break and pronounced it “contrived,” though she agreed to come with me to the Brookline Booksmith reading. We hadn’t had a date in a while, we reasoned, and this would be a good way to get us both out of the house.
Sue Monk Kidd’s latest book, we learn, depicts the unlikely friendship of a white girl and her slave. The audience in the bookstore basement is almost entirely white and unfazed. We leave before the signing, my girlfriend in a huff. On our walk home, she launches into a diatribe about race in America:
“White women think they know all about black people,” she near-shouts, her voice forming puffs in the cold, “and have the privilege to take the voices out of black women’s mouths. It’s sickening, really.” She turns to me for my approval, which I give by means of a small nod. “It was all I could do not to walk out in the middle of that reading.”
A huddle of winter coats at the bus stand, presumably with people beneath, turn towards us to stare. We trudge on, arm in arm, sidestepping patches of ice.
“Rather than Sue Monk Kidd, we should be listening to what black women have to say,” she continues. “There is nothing romantic about slavery whatsoever. It’s frankly disturbing that you could like anything this woman writes.”
In five months of dating, I have learned not to interrupt her when she takes on this tone of voice. What I hear as argumentative, challenging, she interprets as normal speech. Chalk it up to her Russian parents and my New England upbringing, but more days than not, we have difficulty communicating. She was a debater in high school, and I am a quiet poet who likes to take on difficult subjects without a near-yelling tone of voice. Needless to say, the relationship did not last a year. Fortunately this line of argument is sensible, though I wish she would come down from her high horse.
“I don’t think I understood race when I read The Secret Life of Bees in middle school,” I near-whisper. “I just wanted to keep bees.” She looks at me with a pitiful stare. We leave each other to our own thoughts for the next two blocks. I rub my hands together in an attempt to stay warm.
Brookline, Massachusetts is a haven for Russian Orthodox Jews. Even when the wintery weather is too miserable for sensible folks to be out walking, this fact of the population is evidenced by the proliferation of shops with Russian names and consignment stores selling menorahs.
My girlfriend grabs my hand and leads us into a mom and pop Russian grocery. The door opens with a tingle of an overhead bell. We stand at the doormat, stomping our boots free of snow. A woman behind the cash with a topknot and penciled-in eyebrows eyes us from the edge of her People magazine and flips the page nonchalantly. We are the only customers.
Dodging the cashier’s suspecting gaze, we duck into an aisle of Russian sweets where my girlfriend, elated, picks out a handful. “The strawberry ones are the best,” she reasons, “but I’ll get you a chocolate to try as well.”
She wanders through the shop, letting her hand glaze over the Russian words. “My parents used to pack a whole bunch of these candies for picnics at the park.”
I love her, I think, because I will never know her completely.
Having traced the entirety of the store’s three aisles, we find our way to the wall of refrigerators. “Oh, Devi you have to try the tart yogurt. It’s like kefir but even more wonderful.” I nod and take the bottle into my one free hand.
“Do you want to try a tongue?”
“What?” I laugh, wondering if this is code for French kissing in the middle of a grocery store.
“A cow tongue, silly,” she says, walking with purpose towards the frozen section. She opens the frosty door and points to a word in Russian written in sharpie over a lump of whitish things wrapped in plastic. “It says tongue. We’re doing this. I’ll call up my mom for the recipe.” She winks like she does when she’s up to something and we walk out into the grey snow, arms full of possibility.
Back in the kitchen of our cooperative house, my girlfriend sets down the frozen tongue on the counter and calls up her mom in New York to get directions in Russian. After a minute, she hangs up and translates: “Boil for an hour. Smother with salt. Cut up widthwise and eat. Oh, and she wants to hear how it turns out.”
We get the biggest pot we can find from the rack on top of the fridge (this tongue is huge) and set the pot to boil with the tongue inside. Having nothing else to do, she and I retreat to the living room to write a few sentences on our theses while the hour ticks past.
After 45 minutes, the house is starting to smell of boiled tongue.
Our friend Keerthi comes in and peers into the pot. “What are ya’ll making? It looks like a phallus.”
“Gee, thanks Keerthi.”
But then again, we are three queer women with an extremely limited knowledge of phalli, so we call in Matt, the resident expert, to ask. He doesn’t look too happy to be interrupted from his philosophy textbook.
“Matt, you have a penis, right?”
“Does this look phallic to you?”
My girlfriend wrinkles her nose as she stirs the pot with a serving spoon. “It doesn’t smell quite right, either. And for some reason there are white tendrils in the water.”
“Well, what can a tongue smell like?” I ask.
Another fifteen minutes pass without incident, though word has spread throughout the house that we are boiling a cow tongue that may or may not have been a penis in another life. A few other housemates come by to look on. The whole situation is very serious.
My girlfriend drains the tongue of its murky water through a spaghetti strainer and sets it back in the pot, alarmed. Her hand is poised with a pair of tongs. She has just turned over the tongue.
“Devi. C-come here.” she commands, her voice trembling a bit.
“Our tongue has legs.”
I look down in the pot in a state of disbelief. Curled into our tongue are two front and two hind legs: tiny, jointed lumps with tiny, claw-like feet at the end. I mentally place in where a head might have been.
“I think we boiled a bunny.”
She drops the tongs to the floor where they clatter and stay silent. We both take a step back. A few minutes later, Matt relegates the freshly-boiled rabbit to the fridge where it stays for two weeks until someone has the courage to throw it out.
On the other end of the phone in New York, my girlfriend’s mom can’t stop laughing.
Coda: Though my girlfriend and I are no longer on speaking terms, I hear from a friend that she has a new pet bunny. I wish it a long and joyous life.
December 2014: three Fijian women eye me expectantly as I lift a fork to my mouth with the tiniest bit of ox tongue on the end. My teeth collide and mash into something tender and salty. I chew, trying to keep my face neutral.
“It tastes just like any other piece of beef, doesn’t it?” Annie coos. “The poor girl, we’re probably scaring her half to death.”
I nod and swallow quickly, giving them all the thumbs up. “Vinaka! Thank you. That was… new.”
Annie’s sister and mother laugh with the whole of their bodies. In this house of women, I somehow feel free.
Wherever I move, my memories move with me. Travel is, I am coming to find, a process of becoming more present in my own past. Daily I tack back and forth between the languages of memory. Part of who I am and where I have been––the tastes and textures of my life––only come into focus when I welcome the new with my mouth wide open.