Thursday 2 May 2013

Ep 6: Entree and Lamb Tongues

The bleating lamb’s

chatty tongue

now silenced.


Lie still.

Cat caught you.

And you are

Still lying?

Is there a doctor in the house who isn’t a psychopathic killer monster??? Get me out of this episode, nurse! As Hannibal’s food stylist, I’m looking furtively for food scenes, scanning the script with my hand over my eyes because every line I read is a horrific scene I’ve revisited. Five times. 

That’s because we are in the Goldenrod revision – that means the script has been changed five times. Back in the paper script days, each revision would be issued on different colored looseleaf paper (consecutively: blue, pink, yellow, green, then goldenrod and on and on until you were in double goldenrod hell) We would clip these new colored pages into our first draft white copy to keep our script updated. Now it’s all paperless but the revisions are still named by the old colors. Except there are no colors…cuz there’s no paper. Gone like the hands of time.

Menu planning has its ups and downs 

In four days the food has gone from this:

Initial concept sketch: Tongue Baked in Salt served in the Dining Room with Blood Red Summer Pudding for dessert

...through a couple of rewrites to this:
Final plate design: Tongue en Papillote with Duxelle Sauce

“Nice to have an old friend for dinner”, says Hannibal at the top of the dining room scene as he presents plates of Lamb Tongues en Papillote to Dr Chilton and Alana Bloom. So, let me see: 3 people times 5 pages of dialogue minus 3 pages of flashbacks times 2 tongues per plate. Ummmm. That’s 72 tongues equals 24 tongues each. I don’t think any of the actors want to eat even the tip of 24 tiny tongues. Especially not the tip.

Is Raul Esparza a vegetarian? Does Caroline Dhavernas hate lamb? These are the actors doing the scene with Mikkelsen. My queries to the producer disappear into the black hole of unanswered emails.

I think about this as I watch my test batch of lamb’s tongues poach. They curl up into grayish-mauve lobes of what look like blind oversized larvae. They are not tempting.

No matter how ghoulish, I want the food to look like something you really want to taste –against your better judgment.  Every character in this show is on a knife-edge. Will teeters on the edge of sanity; Hannibal balances between truth and lies; Jack is cold, then kind. I want the food also to have the tension of precarious balance: repellant but tempting. Slightly off-center.
The Caesar salad watches with peacock eyes as I deconstruct it on the props table

Prepping for the dinner scene, I hand-shape the tongues individually out of  a modified Kibbeh recipe – bulgar ground with beef stock and mild spices. I make them bigger than lamb tongues because I want them to look like children’s tongues – out of the mouth of babes. (FBI babes?) Then I steam them and shade them with food coloring.  I make 60 which luckily, turns out to be exactly the right amount. If the director had asked for one more take I would have been in trouble. Sometimes you get lucky…
A succulent pair of tongues in an origami lotus
Sometimes you don’t…
Wine Jelly - no problem.  Sugared Roses - no problem. Norton grapes - PROBLEM!!!!!

Toto, we are not in Norton country

Two days before the shoot, another script change that has Hannibal garnishing wine jelly with Norton grapes.  

I call Chrysalis, the largest grower of Norton grapes in the US. Could they Fed-Ex us some? Sorry, they just shipped out the last of their Nortons  but they would phone around to some of the small producers.

I call my brother-in-law who studied to be a vintner in Australia. Yes, says Adam, they are in the opposite season Down Under but the grapes are still green.

I call John Szabo, the Master Sommelier who contributed wine notes to my Cocktail Chef cookbook. Nothing local that resembles Norton. Can’t I use another large round table grape? No, I say the script calls for Hannibal to peel a Norton grapes to show the flesh is the same color as the skin. All the available grapes have pale green flesh.

I call Jojo a crime reporter pal of mine who knows a lot of local wine-makers. OK, I’ve scraped the bottom of my wine-pal barrel.

Chrysalis calls back empty-handed. I knew that.

I go – as we all ultimately must, to Google. The Great One links me effortlessly to Dr. Violetka Colova of the Centre for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research at the Florida University. She is the world’s leading authority on Norton grapes. She is charming, sympathetic and full of ideas and eye-opening information but has not one single Norton grape in her vast research greenhouse.

Only one day left to solve this. I buy a couple flats of large round red grapes and start testing materials: wax, shellac, latex. In the end, I peel the grapes, dye them in purple food coloring, then dip them in some thinned purple pigmented beeswax that I had left over from an encaustic art project. Once the wax hardens, I dust the grapes with white eyeshadow to give them a just-picked bloom. By 10pm, my entire kitchen is decked with little purple balls dying and drying on wire racks. In the middle of my grape-elf work, I get a call from the director: could I bring a couple of grape alternatives. Oh, hey, no problem. I rethink my shellac idea and try painting some of the grapes with nail polish. The results are not bad at all. My call time is in 5 hours.

I wake up in 3 hours to phone my assistant, Ettie: On the way to the shoot, please stop at the 24-hour drugstore and pick up an assortment of dark nail polish. We rush to the studio and paint up a batch of alternative grapes. They dry just in time for the director to say he prefers the wax ones. Well, that worked out well.
A breadbasket I fashioned from a leaf and a horn gets kicked to the curb (too big for the shot) - in the background are several trays of little tongues waiting to go on camera.
As I write this, I’m trying not to worry about the champagne towers I built yesterday for a party scene in “Dr. Cabbie”, a film about a cab driver who becomes famous for delivering babies in his taxi. They are shooting the scene now and I’m not on set to coach the actor as he pours the champagne in that top glass --  camera rolling as the champagne floods over, filling the pyramid of glasses – or not. I hope the props guy is saying, “Well that worked out well.”

Now, to get to the meat of the matter, the recipe for this week’s episode:

Silver Tongue Devils

An easy version of Hannibal's Lambs' Tongues en Papillote with Duxelle Sauce
Serves 4 small portions

It’s a little tricky to get lamb tongues so I’m giving you a recipe using cooked beef tongue which you can buy by the pound at a deli (or brine and poach a fresh one yourself.) For Hannibal, I folded origami lotuses out of parchment paper to present the tongues but here, I’ll give directions for folding simple foil packets to bake the tongue in. Elegant packets can be made “en Papillote” out of heart-shaped paper if you know the technique and have the parchment, but this foil version is dead simple.

For the Duxelles
½ cup       chopped red onions
2 cups      chopped mushrooms
3 Tbsp     butter
¾ cup      white wine
pinch       nutmeg
to taste     salt and pepper
¼ tsp       balsamic vinegar

For the Tongue packets
4              sheets light aluminum foil cut in 12” diameter circles
12 oz       cooked tongue, sliced ¼” thick cut in pieces 3” x 2”
1              tomato, cut in ½” dice
4 sprigs   fresh rosemary
                olive oil

  1. Make the Duxelles: In a very large sauté pan over medium high heat, melt butter and add onions, frying til they begin to soften. Add the chopped mushrooms and saute, stirring frequently, just until mushrooms release their juices.
  2. Add wine and boil until liquid is reduced to 2 or 3 Tbsp. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper and balsamic. Set aside to cool.
  3. To make the packets, place a circle of foil on working surface. In the centre of the lower half of the circle of foil, place 1 slice of tongue, top with 1 Tbsp Duxelle, another slice of tongue and more Duxelle. Add another layer if your tongue slices are small. To close up the packet, bring the upper half of the circle of foil over so the upper and lower circumferences meet. Crimp the edges together well, making the seal as airtight as possible and taking care to leave at least one inch of space all around the tongue.  This is where the aromatic steam will build up during the baking, puffing out your foil packets. Repeat with remaining foil sheets. Refrigerate until 30 minutes before serving. Reserve remaining Duxelles to serve on the side.
  4. Twenty minutes before serving time, place the foil packets on a baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° for 15 minutes. Reheat Duxelles. Plate the foil packets unopened. When guests open their packets at the table, a lovely puff of rosemary-scented steam will rise to whet their appetites.

For the shoot, the vegetable accompaniment was steamed squash – to give the actors something to eat other than the bulgar tongues. 

Next week: Heart Tartare and Jose Andre’s Tomato Brains


  1. Incredibly impressive, as usual -- the food styling on this show really is at a stunning level, and makes the meals pop even among the rest of the remarkable visual design. And to know how much intricate work and perfectionism you put into everything behind the scenes makes it stand out as amazing work even more.

    I love this blog and I love that you share how much care and effort goes into the smallest details.

    *Have* you had to recreate anything as a vegetarian version for the show?

    1. The foie gras served to Laurence Fishburne and his wife Gina Torres in Episode 4 was vegetarian. They preferred not to eat the real foie. I always try to find out in advance about the dietary restrictions of the actors and just before the scene shoots, I show them exactly what will be on their plates so they won't have any surprises. I put blanched vegetables of some kind on the plates so they have something neutral to eat during the many repeat takes.

      I love that you are interested in the details!

  2. What a brilliant post! I attended a culinary school (one of the mediocre ones owned by a for-profit "dream" peddling company) and eschewed working in kitchens in favor of hospitality. Somewhere I developed a knack for details and found myself working in film production by accident a few years ago, starting when I noticed how poorly dressed a restaurant scene was on a friend's indie project. I've had the pleasure of styling food on a few low budget pieces (great fun to wrestle with logistics) and it's an indescribable treat to see such exquisite plates in the show and be able to read about the amount of work and forethought needed to pull it all together on a large production! Thank you for blogging!

  3. And for doing it with such a great sense of humor!

    1. It's interesting to hear how you started food styling. My start came when I had an interior design shop. Next door was a specialty food shop. One day a food photographer asked them if they could make a carved winter melon soup for an article on Chinese food. They said No, but the woman next door might - I did, and that was the beginning!

  4. This is the most entertaining blog ever! So I have been wondering: were the tongues supposed to be human, lamb, or ambiguous? I initially thought they looked human, but they are si small, and even if he ate children I don't think 6 missing kids at once would go unnoticed.

    1. Those were children's tongues. Hannibal isn't like you and me. We cook whatever is in our fridge or at the market that day. If he wakes up and says "I feel like a little tongue today", he doesn't slip on his leather gloves and go out to get fresh. Hannibal has a bank of Sub-Zeros under the stairs. He has been harvesting and storing body parts for y-e-a-r-s. Only six kids missing? Heheheheh...count again.

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