Let us consider what chitlins are – they are hog intestines or guts
Some people turn up their noses at the mention of chitlins; other leave the house while they are cooking, driven away by their odor. They are a food that you either love or hate!
However, the volume sold for New Year’s dinners, with Christmas and Thanksgiving not far behind, attests to chitlins popularity in the United States. Chitterlings is the more formal name, but most people call them chitlins. They are usually part of a larger meal that includes collard greens, fried chicken, and other traditional Southern foods. Chitlins are not for the faint of palate or smell, which is why traditionally they were cooked outdoors at backyard hog killings in winter.
Chitlins take a lot of time and effort to clean. They are partially cleaned when they are sold, but require additional hand cleaning before they are ready to eat. The secret to good and safe chitlins is in the cleaning, not in the cooking. They are available in supermarkets in African-American neighborhoods, especially during the holiday season. They can also be ordered from a butcher, but be prepared to buy 10 pounds of chitlins to get 5 pounds to cook.
Photos courtesy of J. B. Coltrain, County Extension Director, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
History of Chitterlings/Chitlins:
Animal innards have long been treasured foods around the world. Scotland’s national dish is haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with the animal’s minced heart, liver, and lungs). Throughout Europe, tripe (cow or ox stomach) is popular, and French chefs in upscale restaurants serve dishes based on cow’s brains and kidneys.
In 1966, the town of Salley, South Carolina, inaugurated the annual Chitlin’ Strut. The first festival attracted about a hundred people. Today the festival draws about 70,000 people. It is estimated that more than 128,000 pounds of chitlins have been eaten during the festival’s history.
Eating chitlins in the rural South is not as common as it once was. In colonial times, hogs were slaughtered in December, and how maws or ears, pigs feet, and neck bones were given to the slaves. Until emancipation, African-American food choices were restricted by the dictates of their owners, and slave owners often fed their slaves little more than the scraps of animal meat that the owners deemed unacceptable for themselves. Because of the West African tradition of cooking all edible parts of plants and animals, these foods helped the slaves survive in the United States.
The informal circuit of juke joints and clubs patronized by African Americans has long been called the “Chitlin Circuit.” The Chitlin’ Circuit was a string of music venues in the South that sold chitlins’ and other soul food dishes. In the late 50’s and early 60’s these tours were crucial to Black artists. Because there was no media coverage for these artists, the Chitlin’ Circuit was the only way to perform for their fans.
By mid-century there were several active chitterling eating clubs – Royal Order of Chitlin Eaters of Nashville, Tennessee and the Happy Chitlin Eaters of Raleigh, North Carolina.
There is even a song on chitlins called Chitlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County:
There’s a quiet and peaceful county in the state of Tennessee
You will find it in the book they call geography
Not famous for its farming, its mines, or its stills
But they know there’s chitlin cookin’ in them Cheatham County hills
When it’s chitlin cookin’ time in Cheatham County I’ll be courtin’ in them Cheatham County hills
And I’ll pick a Cheatham County chitlin cooker
I’ve a longin’ that the chitlins will fill
Most families who love to cook chitlins have their own recipe passed down from generation to generation. My friend, Andra Cook of Raleigh, North Carolina, says her mother, Martha McCollum, always fried the chitlins after they were simmered.
Andra says, “If you can get past the smell, they have an interesting flavor. When my mother prepared them, the whole neighborhood smelled!”