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How Chitlins Became a Soulful Holiday Delicacy

You think politics causes arguments, try pressing soul food fans on whether they eat chitlins (a.k.a. chitterlings). Chitlins are the most divisive item on the soul food plate, and no one is on the fence about them. You either love chitlins or hate them. Put me squarely on the "love" side. I eat chitlins only a few times a year, mainly on Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Given the amount of time it takes to prepare, clean, and cook chitlins, most home cooks save chitlins for the holiday season. But this puts me in good company with many African Americans who have long considered chitlins a delicacy and food for festive occasions—a sentiment that endures to this day in soul food culture.

What Exactly are Chitlins?

As much as I love chitlins (or Chitterlings, as they are also referred to), the dish is widely misunderstood, and has a lot of haters for three primary reasons. The first is because of what chitlins are--an animal's intestines. In soul food cuisine, that usually means pig's intestines, which need proper cleaning before consumption (see below on how to properly prepare chitlins). The second objection to chitlins is that the cleaning and cooking process creates a smell that some might describe as "unholy." I, however, think of it as a perfume. (I know, I know; I've got issues.) The third criticism is ideological: It's the widespread belief, especially among African Americans, that chitlins are the unwanted part of the pig that slave owners historically threw away, so why would anyone really want to eat the master's garbage?

From Dregs to Delicacy

Despite its strong association with enslaved and later, impoverished African Americans, wealthy Europeans once considered chitlins a prestige food to be relished. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European gentry looked forward to eating the intestines of the animals they hunted, usually deer. In time, these wealthy diners expanded their menu to include the innards of domesticated animals like cows and pigs. Hannah Glasse included a recipe for beef chitterlings in her cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), one of the "go-to" cookbooks for British heritage cooks on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the latter half of the 1700s.

The wealthy were not alone in eating chitlins. Documented accounts of life in the antebellum South mention blacks and whites of all classes enjoying chitlins (in segregated situations), particularly during festive occasions—a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century.

Fried Pork Chitterlings

Fried Pork Chitlins

A Special Occasion Dish

Thanksgiving through New Year's Day is traditionally the peak season for eating chitlins, and that harkens back to the agricultural rhythms of the Old South. People who raised pigs would wait until the fall, when the weather had sufficiently cooled, to butcher and preserve their animals. Such hog killings were often a communal event where several farmers in an area pooled their resources (animals and labor) to kill, process, and preserve pork for the winter months. Anything edible that couldn't be preserved would be consumed immediately at a post-work celebration meal. Chitlins were one of the starring attractions at such meals. Chitlins became synonymous with good times, and it wasn't thought of as a throwaway food.

When millions of African Americans left the rural South during the twentieth century for better opportunities in other parts of the U.S., those migrants took their love of chitlins with them to the cities. A big difference with rural life was that urban butchers made chitlins available all year long. In time, chitlins could appear at any social function—a church gathering, a "rent party" to raise money, or dinner at a friend's house. When African American restaurant culture flourished in urban settings, chitlins were typically a weekend special, but some places offered them daily.

Prepping and Cooking Chitlins

You can get in on the action with my brother Duran's chitlins recipe below. But it's important to know that chitlins require a lot of attention and plenty of time to properly clean them before they are ready for human consumption. I got my best chitlins-cleaning and cooking lesson (see recipe below) standing at Duran's side. Duran's so adept at it that he's taught many others. His chitlins wind up being velvety, less greasy, and less smelly.

If you don't want to do the arduous task of cleaning chitlins, take your chances with the pre-cleaned chitlins products now available in many grocery stores. My experience, however, has been that the words "pre-cleaned" on a package of chitlins is more of an aspirational statement than a reality. Make sure that you do a close inspection before you throw your chitlins in a pot. In all likelihood, you probably will still have to clean them.

Above all, remember: when eaten in moderation, chitlins are a cause for celebration!

Spicy chitterlings salad

Try Chitterlings in a Spicy Chitterlings Salad

Chitlins Duran

Makes 12 servings

Ingredients:

20 pounds fresh or thawed and

chitlins, cut into 6-inch lengths

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, chopped

4 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes

Hot sauce, coleslaw, and meatless spaghetti, for serving

Instructions:

1. Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Drain the chitlins and transfer them into the boiling water, and let cook for 5 minutes. This step helps kill germs and does not interfere with cleaning the chitlins.

2. Drain the chitlins in a colander, pour them into a clean sink or very large bowl, and cover them with fresh, cold water. (If the chitlins came in buckets, use one of them to hold the parts that will be discarded.) Refill the large pot with cold water to hold the chitlins after they are cleaned.

3. To clean each strip of chitlins, use your fingers to separate the thin, transparent membrane from the rough part. (This is like pulling the top piece of tape from double-sided tape.) Rinse the membrane under cold running water until it is free of debris and dirty fat, but leave any clean fat. Drop the cleaned part into the pot and discard the rest. Check out

to see what you're looking for when you clean them.

4. Drain the pot of cleaned chitlins and cover them with fresh cold water. Repeat the draining and rinsing process until the water is no longer cloudy.

5. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Drain the chitlins, return them to the pot, and cover with fresh water. Simmer for 1 hour. Drain the chitlins, return them to the pot, and cover with fresh water. Add the onion, garlic, and pepper flakes. Simmer until the chitlins are very tender and a little shiny from the grease, about 2 hours more. They will look like long, gray-brown, thick noodles.

6. Remove the chitlins from the pot with tongs and divide among serving plates. Serve hot with hot sauce, coleslaw, and spaghetti with a meatless tomato sauce.

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About Adrian Miller

I'm the author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time," which won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. Visit me at soulfoodscholar.com.