At first, let us consider what chitlins are: hog intestines or guts.
Some people turn up their noses only at their mention, while other leave the house while they are cooking, disgusted by their odor, and this is why traditionally they were cooked outdoors at backyard hog killings in winter.
However, the volume sold for New Year’s dinners, with Christmas and Thanksgiving not far behind, attests to chitlins (or, more formally, chitterlings) popularity in the United States!
In any case, animal innards have long been treasured foods around the world. For istance, Scotland’s national dish is haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with the animal’s minced heart, liver, and lungs), while throughout Europe tripe (cow or ox stomach) is very popular, and French chefs in luxury restaurants serve dishes based on cow’s brains or kidneys.
Eating chitlins in the rural South is not as common as it once was. In colonial times, African-American slaves prepared food from the meat scraps of their owner’s butchered livestock. 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.
But why were chitlins designated “slave food”?
Since one’s social status dictated which part of the animal they ate, slaves mostly dined on the trotters (feet), maw (stomach), and chitlins, all of which required intense cleaning. On the other hand, wealthy people tended to eat the upper portions of leg and back, hence the affluence-denoting phrase “high on the hog.”
But chitlins came to represent more than sustenance.
During the era of Jim Crow laws, they were a code.
The informal collection of restaurants, music venues and clubs patronized by African Americans has long been called the “Chitlin Circuit.” In the late 50’s and early 60’s these tours were crucial to Black artists. Because there was no media coverage for them, the Chitlin’ Circuit was the only way to perform for their fans.
Chitlins remained popular after emancipation and well into the Jim Crow era, when African-American eateries served it with other dishes created by ex-slaves, now called “soul food.”
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 and have been produced almost half a million pounds’ worth of chitlin.
And, to leave nothing to chance, 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”
Images from web.