“Do fish have tongues?”

I’ve been following Krista D. Ball (@kristadb1) on Twitter ever since I first read her book, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, several years ago. It’s an outstanding book and is guaranteed to have you scoffing every time your questers pause to cook up a quick rabbit stew in the field. If you read or write fantasy, you really ought to pick up a copy.

At any rate, I kept following Krista on Twitter because every once in a while she lets her Newfoundland foodie self loose. I’ve always been fascinated by regional foods, and Newfoundland has some great ones.

On a recent trip to see her parents, Krista picked up what sounds like a metric truckload of cod tongues. She was super excited about it, but as you can see, I had some trouble wrapping my mind around the concept.

@kristadb1 tweet: “Big day tomorrow. Gotta get the fish, cod tongues, & salt pork packed into my suitcase. (LOOK THIS IS A NORMAL THING FOR NEWFIES TO DO) and then I gotta say good bye, and then I gotta return the rental, and then fly back across the country.” @shalahowell response: “When you say cod tongues, do you truly mean the actual tongues of actual fishes? Or is it code for steak?” @kristadb1 response: “Tongues of cod”
Our Twitter exchange… The other reason I love following Krista is the fact she always responds.

Despite Krista’s assurances, I still had trouble processing the concept of cod tongues. So I looked it up.

What exactly is tongue of cod?

I found an excellent article on Atlas Obscura on this very topic. You will be relieved to know that fried cod tongues are a real food. Apparently, they taste like scallops. People eat them lightly fried in batter and seasoned with salt, pepper, and little bits of pork. Sounds kind of tasty, actually.

But in a shocking twist, cod tongues aren’t exactly tongues. According to Atlas Obscura, cod tongues are really a small muscle extracted from the back of the fish. They are just called tongues because it’s more palatable for consumers that way. At least theoretically. (My daughter would like me to point out here that “cod tongue” lacks a certain universal appeal.)

Fried cod tongues became a delicacy after the cod fishing industry in the Labrador Sea collapsed. When cod were abundant, folks didn’t bother to scoop out that weird muscle and package it as food. But once cod themselves became a precious commodity, every edible bit of them became something to savor.

After learning that cod tongues aren’t actual tongues, I found myself wondering…

Do any fish have tongues?

After all, my husband has looked in the mouth of many a bass and there’s no tongue there. At least not one we’d recognize.

It turns out that some fish do have tongues, but they aren’t like ours.

According to Science Focus, the online home for BBC Focus Magazine, most fish have a bony structure on the bottom of their mouth called a basihyal. Basihyal don’t have taste buds, aren’t exactly muscular, and don’t have much range of motion, so we might not recognize them as tongues if we saw them. Scientists think these folds evolved to protect the ventral aorta (which is pretty close to a fish’s mouth) from being damaged by contact with super wiggly food.

Reader, it gets worse.

What’s really horrifying, though, is that some fish tongues come equipped with teeth for latching on to prey. Naturally, I discovered this courtesy of the Australian Museum. (Of the ten creatures that terrify me the most, nine of them live in Australia.) Until I wrote this blog post I had never realized that fish teeth were on my list of terrifying creature features, but there they are. Right above the entry for Mutant Chicken Teeth.

Mouth and tongue of a Cottonmouth Trevally. (Photo: Mark McGrouther (c) Australian Museum)

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