Chitlins. Mmm, mmm good.
Doused with some Louisiana Hot Sauce with a pinch of sweet buttered cornbread, a dab of candied sweet potatoes, a forkful of the down-home delicacy was always like an explosion of sunshine in my mouth.
Lord, have mercy!
Chitlins or chitterlings — depending on one’s pronunciation — are hog small intestines, boiled, or battered and deep-fried. Not the main course, but always the seasonal soup du jour. Akin to Scottish haggis, way black when, it fell just shy of being proclaimed the national dish for African Americans.
Growing up, chitlins was only for two special occasions: Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The scent of our West Side apartment announced their arrival and preparation, the unmistakably pungent aroma of hog bowels and spice blending with the fragrance of Mama’s pineapple upside-down cake, chicken and dressing, and collard greens. “Chits,” my mother called them affectionately.
I always knew that chits weren’t suited to everyone’s palate. My brother and youngest sister always took a pass on the family delicacy, their prepubescent lips twisting in complete disgust.
But it wasn’t until much later, after venturing beyond my ghetto cocoon, that I learned that the idea of eating hog intestines repulsed some folks who weren’t black. That chitlins carried a stigma, a certain sense of shame associated with being peasant fare.
I later discovered that even some black folks turned up their noses with a repulsive “ugh,” wondering aloud how I could confess to feasting on such vile victuals.
Aware of the existing anti-chitlin sentiment, I confess, the more I climbed the socioeconomic ladder, the more I learned to keep my chitlin-loving ways to myself.
God forbid that I should ever admit to also having eaten mountain oysters (cow or pig testicles), kidneys, hog maw and cow tongue. Or that my grandfather, 95, and raised a country boy, still enjoys dining on the occasional garnished and roasted coon, on squirrel, rabbit and scrumptious possum. Grandpa has sometimes invited me to partake.
“Coon? Nah, Granpa, I’ll pass,” I’d reply.
Not on my plate. No judgment. Just no vermin.
I always suspected, however, that some black folks’ revulsion to chitlins — particularly some highfaluting members of the Afrostocacry — had something to do with being associated with a food forever connected to our slave past.
Chitlins — a scented symbol of unsophistication, poverty and lack. Chitlins — an irrevocable reminder that hog intestines would never be the first choice in pork cuisine. That chitlins is among the least desirable parts of the pig, like the snout, ears, feet and neck bones — the parts that white masters, according to historical accounts, gave to the slaves after they had taken the precious desired cuts.
This much is also clear to me: That chitlins was survival food. Born in hardship, birthed out of necessity. Ingloriously bestowed upon us, once upon a time in America when we were slaves. Distilled in the baptismal waters and fire of improvisation, faith, fortitude and determination to simply keep on keepin’ on, somehow, some way.
Chitlins, for me, is a historical reminder of how my ancestors — from the guts of nothingness — always managed to form glorious substance that became the sustenance for a nation. A recipe of will, self-determination and survival — something so lacking from our diet today.
And I will never be ashamed to eat or to confess to eating something that helped sustain my mothers and fathers, or their sons and daughters. For I am one of them.
I rarely eat pork anymore. But come Christmas, I look forward to the waft of chitlins in my suburban house, blending with the scent of sweet potato pie and memories.
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