Looming over me was a blur of aquamarine eye shadow, crimson blusher, and frosted orange lipstick, topped by a head of henna-red hair that would make a mad scientist jealous. Zoya ran a state-owned cosmetics factory, and no doubt, was also one of its best customers. I was her houseguest for a weeklong homestay during my visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. But at that moment, I felt more like her hostage.
She had plunked a plate down in front of me with some slices of lean, medium-rare meat. She didn’t know a word of English—and she didn’t need to. I could read her thoughts like a native-speaker. “You vill find dis to be de most tantalizing and delightful meal you haff ever eaten, and I vill stare at you until I know eet ees trrrrrue!”
I picked up my knife and fork, then sawed off a bite. What is this stuff? I wondered. Not a filet, not a tenderloin. It didn’t look quite like anything I’d ever eaten before. The slices were neat little ovals, rosy in the center, fading to gray at the edge. Not a bit of fat. Despite my dread, it tasted good.
Mustering the few words of Russian I’d learned, I raised my eyes to her stern, Technicolor face. “Good,” I proclaimed. “What is it?” Triumphant, Zoya beamed at me and opened her mouth to reply. But instead of speaking, she thrust her tongue out as far as it would go, straight in my direction. I flinched back against the spindly dining room chair. Had I erred, and just delivered a hideous insult?
Before I could dredge up the Russian words, “I’m sorry,” Zoya hoisted her arm like she’d been watching illicit TV broadcasts of Vanna White. She jabbed her finger towards her tumescent tongue. At that moment, I realized what I had been eating.
Now, when you scoop an eyeball onto your spoon, you know exactly what you’re in for. You’re prepared. But I was suddenly smacked by images of those gigantic tongues I’d seen laid out in meat cases as a kid. More like evidence of satanic torture than food.
Zoya beamed at the compliment I’d bestowed, her face glowing with a wattage that far exceeded mere makeup. She proceeded to serve me my favorite dish for the next three nights.