On Thanksgiving Day, I was talking on the phone with a life-long friend and the subject of CHITTERLINGS – the classic soul food dish better known as “CHITTLINS” – came up.
I was stunned that my friend, who’s 70 years old, said he had never eaten them. Like a lot of folks, my buddy said he couldn’t get pass the smell. Chittlins are, to put it nicely – odiferous! When you walk into a house where chittlins (what I affectionately call “WRINKLES”) are cooking, you certainly know it!
Over my 68 years of life, I’ve concluded that you can place African-Americans – very generally speaking – in two categories: Chittlin’ eaters and non-chittlin’ eaters!
Anyway, following my talk with my friend – I actually began to consider the CHITTERLING – from a cultural and a gastronomic standpoint.
Chittlins, for those who don’t know, are pig intestines. Generally, they come frozen, packed raw in a bucket-type container and must be thoroughly cleaned before cooking, to remove any and all fecal matter. Then, they’re boiled with various seasonings (sometimes Hog Maws are added to make the final product ‘meatier’) and slow cooked for 5 to 7 hours. They can also be fried, but, by the far, the most popular way to prepare them is by boiling ‘em in a big pot.
Back during slavery, the black captives were routinely given the pig intestines to eat while the ‘Massa’ and his family ate the other, more appealing parts of the hog. The saying, “Living high off the Hog,” comes from the fact that the more affluent eat the higher parts of the pig, while the poor folk had to eat the lower parts like the intestines and the pig feet.
Culturally, there’s a feeling of pride and remembrance of one’s slave ancestors that I and other black folks attach to eating “WRINKLES.“ And so, Chittlins are kind of like the MAROR (bitter herbs) that Jews will traditionally eat during the Passover Seder, the ritual performed as part of the retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. The bitter herbs are eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of bondage.
Chronicle News graphic
And so it is, for me, partially because of the harshness of American slavery, and the fact that my ancestors prepared and ate Chitterlings because that was all they had to eat – that I love me some WRINKLES! It’s kind of an act of defiance. Also….I long ago acquired a taste for them. I’m from a Chittlin eatin’ family going back to my earliest known ancestors, my maternal great-great-great grandparents Joseph and Hannah Warren.
Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Cass County, TX.
As an aside, in closing – Chittlins became synonymous with black American culture during the Jim Crow era of segregation. If a restaurant or club publicized that it served chitlins, it was understood to be a safe place for black performing artists and fans to gather to enjoy some of their favorite music and other entertainment. Collectively, these venues were known as the CHITTLIN CIRCUIT.
And now, perhaps, you know the rest of the story……