CHITLINS (CHITTERLINGS). Chitlins or chitterlings, the small intestines harvested from a hog, are a frugal staple of myriad cuisines. After being soaked, thoroughly scraped, and cleaned, chitterlings have long been stuffed with forcemeats and spices and served as sausages. But chitterlings usage has never been limited to sausage making.
In England, cooks combine diced, sautéed chitterlings with mashed potatoes, form the mix into rounds, cap the resulting dumplings with grated cheese, and term the dish Down Derry. In and around Lyon, France, chitterlings, or andouillettes, are fried in lard or butter and served with vinegar and parsley.
No matter the cuisine or continent, chitterlings have long signaled linkage to the farm-based butchery of pigs. In rural districts worldwide, the cold weather killing of a pig and the removal of the chitterlings is a ritual of great import. In the American South, chitterlings, pulled hot from a cauldron of simmering water and eaten with a dose of vinegary or peppery condiment, are considered by many to be a reward for the hard work of farm-based butchery. This farm-to-table linkage has acquired special significance in the American South, where chitterlings (termed "chitlins" by most in an approximation of the prevailing pronunciation) have come to acquire a cultural importance that arguably exceeds traditional culinary usage.
In the book Chitlin Strut and Other Madrigals, the novelist and essayist William Price Fox of South Carolina asks the rhetorical question, "Who will eat a chitlin?" The answer: "You take a man and tie him to a stake and feed him bread and water and nothing else for seven days and seven nights, and then he will eat a chitlin. He won't like it, but he will eat it." Fox ascribes to the idea of chitlins as a marker of poverty. According to this often espoused rationale, chitlins and other pork offal products have long been a staple of the southern diet, and their presence was dictated not by preference but by a poverty-engendered creativity that could be claimed by all denizens of rural and impoverished southern districts.
White rural Southerners of the twentieth century, faced with the prospect of a rapidly industrializing and homogenizing region, doted on both boiled and deep-fried chitterlings. For these men and women, chitterlings served as both symbol and sustenance. By mid-century there were active chitterling eating clubs, like the Royal Order of Chitlin Eaters of Nashville, Tennessee, and the Happy Chitlin Eaters of Raleigh, North Carolina. The traditional song "Chitlin Cookin' Time in Cheatham County" gives voice to the same:
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
African Americans with roots in the rural South also claimed a specific cultural meaning for chitlins. At an early date, forced reliance upon offal marked the foods of black southerners with a meaning different from those of whites. Until emancipation, African American food choice was restricted by the dictates of white society. Despite these restrictions, perhaps even as a retort of sorts, African Americans fashioned a cuisine of their own. Laws may have been enacted to regulate slave dress and codify slave mores, but in the kitchen freedom of expression was tolerated, even encouraged. As a result, African American cooks reinterpreted traditional foodways in an African-influenced manner and claimed chitterlings as distinctly African American.
Chitterling imagery pervades African American culture. The informal circuit of juke joints and clubs patronized by African Americans has long been called the "Chitlin Circuit." The bluesman Mel Brown, a veteran of the circuit, chose to title his early 1970s greatest hits album Eighteen Pounds of Unclean Chitlins and Other Greasy Blues Specialties.
When soul food came to the fore in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, chitlins—along with watermelons and okra—were celebrated as a cultural sacrament. But not all African Americans embraced chitterlings as a preferred marker of identity. "You hear a lot of jazz about soul food," observed Eldridge Cleaver in 1968. "Take chitterlings: the ghetto blacks eat them from necessity while the black bourgeoisie has turned it into a mocking slogan . . . . Now that they have the price of a steak, here they come prattling about Soul Food."
The novelist Ralph Ellison understood how chitterlings functioned as both preferred cultural marker and liability. In the novel Invisible Man (1952), the protagonist imagines a scenario wherein he accuses Bledsoe, a pompous but influential educator, of a secret love of chitterlings:
I saw myself advancing upon Bledsoe . . . and suddenly whipping out a foot or two of chitterlings, raw, uncleaned, and dripping sticky circles on the floor as I shake them in his face, shouting: "Bledsoe, you're a shameless chitterling eater! I accuse you of relishing hog bowels! Ha! And not only do you eat them, you sneak and eat them in private when you think you're unobserved! You're a sneaking chitterling lover!"
See also Pig ; Sausage ; United States, subentries on African American Foodways and The South .
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
Fox, William Price. Chitlin Strut and Other Madrigals. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1983.
Schwabe, Calvin W. Unmentionable Cuisine. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.
John T. Edge