The nip of fall in the air brings to mind for some of us old enough to remember it the ritual of hog-killing. Along with everything else − the salt and sugar cured hams, the bacon, the sausage, the fresh cuts eaten before the rest, even the head cheese − there was one item that excited many in those days that hardly does in these.
I speak of the lowly “chittlin,” or “chitterling,” if one wants to be proper. Or as proper as one can be when talking, in this case, about the small intestines of a pig, carefully cleaned of contents then repeatedly washed, followed by frying or boiling. Some, Creole cooks for instance, even make a ragout of sorts with them.
In days past, the fall hog killings were almost invariably followed close at hand by a “chittlin supper.” Often neighbors who had butchered their hogs at the same time would pool their chittlins and invite other neighbors, who would of course be expected to tender invitations when their own pigs had squealed their last.
Southern cookery has been faddish for some time now, and even grits no longer have to be explained to Yankees and other outliers. Shrimp and grits, though not a combination I favor, can now be had even on the upper West Side in New York City, in restaurants that drizzle sauces on your plate to look like the oil leaks under an old pickup. The proper way to cook grits − simmered in milk and water (or on low in just milk) − is now common knowledge, with the concepts of cheese grits and fried grits easy enough to make understood.
Chittlins, however, are not likely to follow this trend.
First of all, though they are most often associated with Southern cookery, their provenance goes back further. English cookbooks from the early 1700s mention “calves chitterlings” as a stew of calves organs with bacon, and Hannah Glasse’s 1747 classic “The Art of Cookery” repeats this. This was probably something similar to menudo of Latino cookery. Since the Southern diet has traditionally favored more pork than beef or mutton − the heavy Celtic influence of the colonial and early republic years is at work here − it’s natural this would be expanded to give the pig his due respect.
Why “chitterling” entered the language, according to some lexicographers, is because the cleaned intestines resembled the ruffles on shirts worn by the fops and dandies of the time, which were called “chitterlings.” True or not, this works for an explanation.
I have been in years past around events where chittlins were served to the true believing, but I’ve never eaten them. Nor am I likely to barring some apocalypse, and then only after all the other parts of the pigs have been eaten and all the grubs, maggots and cockroaches are gone.
“But you’ve eaten haggis,” say some who know that I have. “How can you say you won’t eat chittlins”?
Yes, I have eaten − and enjoyed − haggis, Scotland’s national dish of sheep innards finely chopped and mixed with oatmeal and spices and boiled in a bag made from a sheep’s stomach. It’s traditional in Scotland especially on New Year’s Eve, which is when I ate it and almost where, since I was at the time just a few miles south of the Scottish border. Customarily, it’s served drizzled with Scotch whisky, which has much to recommend it as a condiment. Especially when eating haggis.
No, my reason for never being tempted by chittlins is rooted in a family story about a chittlin supper that could have gone awry.
Once in some Depression year, so the story goes, in the planning for the chittlin supper the fear arose that more had been invited to eat than there were chittlins to well feed. To run out of chittlins during one of these annual affairs was an affront to the unwritten rules of hospitality, and maybe even to public decency.
After some thought, the fellow hosting the supper said not to worry, adding, in effect, “I’ve got this.”
In due course, the chittlins were fried up and the eating began, and shortly into it the host reached up to the corner of his mouth, took out a fragment of a corn kernel and laid it beside his plate. He soon followed with other fragments, all the while praising the chittlins as some of the best he’d ever had. The other eaters weren’t so engrossed in the delicacy, however, that the pile of corn kernel fragments growing beside his plate escaped notice.
One by one, as soon as they could politely manage, they pushed their plates away, rubbed their stomachs, wished they could eat more but their stomachs were telling them they had eaten their fill, more than their fill even.
There were more than enough chittlins to go around. There were leftovers for the next day.
The chittlins had of course been thoroughly cleaned. The host had palmed a few chewed up kernels of seed corn and only pretended to take the pieces out of his mouth.
But every time I’ve even thought of trying chittlins the story comes back to me vividly, along with the thought, “What if …”