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Do Codfish Really Have Tongues?

Written by

Mike Kempster

I grew up in Kansas City, and it’s pretty hard to get farther away from an ocean. But Kansas City is famous for barbecue, so I knew plenty about beef brisket and pork ribs when I started working for Weber in 1971.

Back then, Weber grills were an unusual sight, so we relied on in-store demonstrations to build awareness on how they could grill or roast any cut of meat to perfection. I learned how to demonstrate a Weber grill from the master, George Stephen, its inventor, and
then off I went around the country doing live appearances.

I showed folks how to grill the perfect steak without burning it and how to roast a whole turkey or prime rib for their holiday dinner. I quickly discovered that Americans’ taste for barbecue and what they like to grill varied widely depending on their location. In the South and the lower Midwest, folks liked their barbecue hickory smoked. In Texas and Oklahoma, mesquite was the smoky flavor of choice. In the upper Midwest, people wanted a whole lot less smoky flavor. On the East Coast and West Coast, grilling enthusiasts
were impressed with roasted turkeys, prime rib, and steak, but they also wanted to know about alder-smoked salmon and how to grill a whole lobster.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the seafood requests, I decided to take a crash course in how to grill salmon, swordfish, and halibut. A veteran Weber salesman living in Boston taught me a lot about grilling shellfish, including how to cook a whole lobster over a bed of seaweed. I came away from all my new knowledge amazed by the flavor of grilled seafood.

After a couple of years of learning and demonstrating, I was no longer a rookie, but I was far from an expert. Unfortunately, when you’re wearing an apron and grilling in public—and the turkey does not go up in flames—people immediately regard you as an expert. Thinking back on those days brings to mind a story of how folks came to believe I would know how to grill just about anything.

In the late 1970s, Weber was trying to duplicate its U.S. success in Canada. Very few Canadians had ever seen a Weber grill, however, so the task wasn’t easy. On a cold, gray day in May, I was trying to sell Weber grills at a hardware store in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and I wasn’t having much luck. I was beginning to think that my efforts were a complete bust, when a fellow came along and said, “I’ll buy one of those grills if you can cook cod tongues with it.” I’m sure I looked dumbfounded—and
I was!—so I asked him to repeat the question. I figured this guy was pulling my leg, so I asked, “Do codfish really have tongues?” He laughed and said, “Son, that’s one of the best parts of the cod!”

When my stint at the hardware store was finished, he took me to a fishmonger who showed me that cod tongues were actually the very tender chunks of meat below the mouth of the fish. I asked how people generally prepared them, and he told me they were usually breaded and fried. I immediately told the fellow that I thought I could cook cod tongues on a Weber grill, and if I proved successful, he would have to buy the grill and one very important accessory. He agreed, and the challenge was on!

The next day I arrived at the gentleman’s house with a Weber grill and an accessory that I sometimes used to demonstrate fried rice: a big steel wok. He had bought a pound of cod tongues, and his wife, bless her, had prepared a mixture of flour and cornmeal for the crazy grill salesman on her patio. We dipped the tongues in milk, rolled them in the flour mixture, and then came the test. I was quite nervous at this point.

The coals were red hot and stacked in a pyramid. I set the wok on the rim of the grill and poured in a liberal amount of oil. As the oil began to bubble and smoke, I carefully added the cod tongues, hoping for the best but not really knowing what to expect. I tossed the tongues with wok tools for a few minutes, put the grill lid over the wok to let them cook a while longer, and to everyone’s astonishment, they turned out great. Luckily I had cooked chunks of chicken the same way or I would have been clueless.

True to my host’s word, he bought the grill and the wok.