Whenever I go out for tacos, I make a point of buying at least a couple that are stuffed full of beef tongue. The little cubes of grayish-brown meat taste far better than they look when they’re done right: exceedingly tender and packing the beefy flavor of a great pot roast. With raw onions, cilantro, salsa, and the thin guacamole found at most L.A. taco trucks spooned over the top, a taco de lengua can be a near perfect couple of bites of food. And it sounds so nice—“taco de lengua.”
There’s more to my order than taste and texture, however. It’s also part of my faulty justification for ordering carne asada and tacos al pastor. Because while I very well know that the skirt steak sizzling on a flattop in a parking lot somewhere on Los Angeles’ Eastside didn’t come from a happy place, the least I can do is order something that helps ensure that no commercially raised meat goes to waste.
When a cow is slaughtered, the steaks and roasts that you see at the grocery store account for just 44 percent of the live weight. Plenty of inedible parts of the animal account for the difference, but offal—kidney, liver, heart, and yes, tongue—fall into the “byproduct” gap, accounting for about 12 percent of the animal’s live weight. From just about every standpoint, from ethics to ecology, letting any of that 56 percent of a cow that isn’t sold as meat go unused is a terrible waste—of a life, of resources, of money.
While the nose-to-tail ethics of new wave butcher shops and Brooklyn bistros (or wherever they may be) have become as hip as mason jars and reclaimed wood, consider this: More than 90 percent of American beef tongues are exported, primarily to Mexico and parts of Asia, according to a 2013 marketing brief published by Midwest Producer, an ag business publication. The same brief notes that while the offal export market is hitting all-time highs ($5.51 billion in 2012), it’s dependent on the trade policy of countries with an appetite for organ meat—countries that are sometimes unstable, have lousy relationships with us, or both. Markets in Egypt and Russia have both been threatened because of political strife, for example. If the international demand for organ meat goes away, then it’s off to the rendering plant, where what was once food becomes commodity grease and other industrial products.
So while the tacos de lengua I indulge in on occasion are by no means the most ethically or environmentally sound, I’d like to think that eating them is my small way of helping to bolster a domestic market for tongue and other off cuts. If we’re serious about shortening the food-supply chain, about supporting local products and consuming them with little waste, eating tongue is part of that equation.
Still, it’s something I have a far easier time ordering after a few beers than when facing the anatomical reality of a hulking beef tongue at the butcher shop. But when you consider that the most popular cut of beef in the second quarter of 2014 was the boneless rib eye—selling 36.7 million pounds, according to Beef Retail Marketing—it’s clear that America’s meat consumption is dramatically lopsided. Any steps that can be taken to normalize eating a bit of lengua or another offal cut instead of the all-American steak can help correct it.