This time of year was hog-killing time in the old South.
Back in the days before air conditioning, Prada, dentistry, and good taste forever altered the Southern states and their cherished heritage, families gathered every November to butcher a few hogs and lay up meat for the year. They smoked ham and bacon, ground sausage, and sliced off huge hunks of tenderloin. But they also boiled pigs' feet, rendered lard, formed headcheese, and fried up chitlins. Southerners had the same attitude toward food preparation as do school cafeteria cooks.
Now, headcheese is a particularly disgusting delicacy made from the congealed remains of a pig's head after the brains, eyes, and bones are removed. (We don't even want to think about what they do with the eyes and brains.) But what are chitlins?
Chitlins are just pig intestines, cleaned (one would hope), sliced, and fried. More refined types--teachers in one-room schoolhouses, for example--call them chitlings, or even chitterlings. But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, guts by any other name still smell like something. During the boiling process, chitlins give off an offal--um, awful--smell. "I've never tried them," says a woman in Jackson, Mississippi. "I've smelled them." When the town of Salley, South Carolina, prepares for its annual chitlin strut, many locals actually gag as old-timers clean the fortitude out of the intestines.
Some 70,000 people stream into Salley for the chitlin strut. Chitlins by Shauna, a niche market company in Hyattsville, Maryland, has sold 200 tons of innards over the past five years. Strom Thurmond eats the stuff. So does James Brown. Dr. Howard Clark of Morton, Mississippi, claims that chitlins "sure are good." But most people avoid fried pig guts. A Houston businessman claims he tried some once "after four or five martinis." Others associate chitlins with poverty or race. During hog-butchering times, neighbors would help with the slaughter. According to legend, African-Americans often received the intestines as a reward for helping white farmers. The ancients used to read omens with innards. Those same guts told of America's racial divide.
Ah, but that's the stuff of Southern heritage. In reality, Georgia hospitals report a surge in cases of diarrhea during November and December, caused largely by bacteria found in chitlins. "Most older cooks know to be very careful about disinfecting anything that has touched raw chitlins," says Dorothy Paige of Georgia's Department of Human Resources, Division of Public Health, Maternal and Child Health Unit (the GDHRDPHMCHU). "Remember to clean your refrigerator too if raw chitlins were in there." Georgia urges its people to boil the guts before cooking.
Better yet, why not try something truly exotic. Like pork chops.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.