Chitlins, Deep Down In My Soul
by Emmoretta P. Jones
"They taste good, but they stank!" – This is what I’ve often heard people say of this old southern delicacy. Considering the part of the pig which the popular dish comes from, some Black folks jokingly refer to them as shit-lins. However, mostly everybody I know calls them chitlins. They’re an essential part of soul food tradition.
I grew up eating chitlins. Since from the time I could remember, they were a normal part of our familial cookery. A holiday staple, I always looked forward to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter because I knew that there would be lots of great food like turkey, ham, dressing, greens, candied yams, caramel cake, pecan pie , and – oh yes – chitlins! Back then, my mother didn’t always cook them as they were a lot of trouble to make. But I wasn’t discouraged, because I knew if Mama didn’t make chitlins, then either Grandma or one of my aunts would make some. In our community during the holidays, somebody was always cooking up a batch of this pungent fare.
On one special occasion, I remember our family arriving to a relative’s home for dinner. As soon as they opened the door, we were greeted by that unmistakable aroma.
"Smells like you made chitlins!" exclaimed one of my family members.
Once the food was blessed, the only sounds you heard were of forks clinking against plates. The only words you heard were "pass the hot sauce, please."
With a tall glass of Kool-Aid on the side, my mouth watered at the sight of the tasty dish marinated in soulful seasonings and spices. After dowsing with hot sauce – I tore them chitlins up!
Those were the days. All I had to do to enjoy this soulful cuisine was show up for a holiday, a birthday, or any special gathering and I knew they would be ready-made and I could just grab a plate and dig in. It was all good, that is, until that day when I had to clean chitlins.
I was twelve years old and my sister Liz was thirteen when my mother decided to cook some. Mama set us up at the kitchen sink wearing aprons and rubber gloves. We expected company so she bought four buckets (ten pounds each) for us to clean.
For the first time I got the chance to experience the prep-side of chitlins. The stench is twice as strong, and I had no idea there was so much fat involved, not to mention how difficult it would be to remove; trying to pull that thin, clear fatty tissue proved impossible with the gloves on. So, off went the gloves, and we used our bare fingers. So frustrated with the task, my sister and I became irritated with each other and bickered throughout the entire project.
"Stop slingin’ that stuff on me!"
"You slung some on me first!"
It felt like we would never get through. But a couple hours and four buckets later, it was over. Mama praised us for a job well done. She thoroughly rinsed them, seasoned them, and placed them in the slow-cooker to simmer overnight.
Meanwhile, my sister and I ran to the bathroom to clean our hands that were all pale and wrinkled from that long-drawn-out time in chitlin dampness. We scrubbed and scrubbed with hot, soapy water, but that fatty-funky scent lingered on our skin for about 3 or 4 days after.
The entire house reeked so I stepped on the front porch, in the winter with no coat, to clear my lungs. After I started to get cold, I came back inside and bam! Again, that raw chitiln smell hit me – hard! I started to go back outside, but it was late and I was exhausted, so I went upstairs, showered and went to bed. During my sleep, I could swear that awful smell was in my dreams – stalking me.
In the morning, I awoke to the pleasant aroma of the family feast; the chitlin smell had become faint. I took a deep whiff and I smiled and thanked God. Later, when the company arrived, they commented on how everything smelled delicious and couldn’t wait to eat. Soon, Mama announced that dinner was ready. While all heads were bowed for grace, I could sense everyone’s anxiety to sink their teeth into that single culinary delight. Because after we said amen, my relatives raced for those chitlins! That poor bottle of hot sauce didn’t stand a chance with all my uncles, aunts, cousins and friends passing it around the table.
I watched how, in minutes, the guests devoured what took hours to prepare. All that work going from the plate to the palate and then out of sight. Witnessing this gave me a newfound respect for all those who had prepared chitlins for me in the past.
Before they were all gone, I fixed myself a plate and poured hot sauce all over them. I was ready to grub, but I couldn’t eat them! I kept imagining them in their pre-cooked state. Everybody chowed down on those chitlins – except me.
That was the day I stopped eating chitlins.
Thank God Mama never cooked them again because we never had to clean them again; I just never got past that experience. But, quietly kept, deep down inside my soul I still love chitlins.