photo credit Jared Swafford/Flickr
Perhaps if I had known exactly what chitlins were (or chitterlings, as some people spell it) when I was a boy, I never would have eaten them. Though the funk that wafted through the apartment when grandma stood over the sink cleaning them should have clued me in, how was I to know that my favorite meal was cooked pig intestines.
Though some families only prepared chitlins during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, grandma was not a creature of ceremony. Whenever I saw the white ten-pound buckets taking-up space in the refrigerator, I knew there would be a feast by the end of the week. Raised in Virginia, grandma knew how to “put her foot” in a pot of chitlins.
Dumping the slimy swine parts into a large pan in the sink, grandma gripped the black handle of her long bladed knife with the skill of a butcher. Wearing a flowered apron tied around her thin waist, she managed to look lady like while doing one of the nastiest chores on the planet. Holding our noses, me and baby brother rushed to the front door and went outside to play.
Boiling the chitlins in a giant silver pot of salty water seasoned with celery, onions and vinegar, the entire flat smelled like pork heaven when we returned home hours later. “Are they ready yet?” I screamed, hanging-up my coat in the foyer closet.
“Boy, stop making all that noise and go get cleaned-up.”
After washing our face and hands, we sat at the faux-wood kitchen table, and shook crimson droplets of Red Devil hot sauce on the soul food that also included potato salad, black-eyed peas and collard greens. Devouring my grub with the quickness, I sopped-up the flavorful juice with cornbread and was ready for more. “Your eyes bigger than your stomach,” grandma laughed, as she proudly put more chitlins on the plate.
One thing about grandma, though she never ate much, she got joy from watching other folks eat.
Years later, when I was a freshman at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I hung-out at the college radio station and became friends with an overweight pothead named Gary. With flowing dreadlocks and a thick accent, Gary was an on-air personality (although the station only broadcast on campus) who introduced me to the music of Lee Scratch Perry, Peter Tosh and other reggae artists.
Enviably, when you get two fat guys in a room together, the conversation soon became about food. “You like what?” Gary screamed, not wanting to believe my culinary ignorance. “Man, do you know what chitins are? It’s the pig intestine; you know, what the shit goes through.”
“Get out of here…for real?” I looked at him as though he had gone rabbit hunting on Easter morning or lit the fireplace on Christmas Eve. “You’re joking, right?”
“No joke,” Gary assured me. “It’s the part of the pig that white masters used to give to the slaves, because they didn’t want it.”
For a moment, I was mute. Pondering the deepness of this history, I reflected on its meaning before finally determining that it was too late for me to turn back; blunted on surreality, I reasoned that rejection of chitlins would a denial of my southern heritage and family roots.
“Well, they taste good to me,” I said, much to Gary’s chagrin. Indeed, it was my intention, as my favorite southern female performer Gladys Knight once sang, “To keep on keeping on.”
Ten years after that discussion with Gary, grandma moved to Baltimore to live with my mother; a few years after that, she got stomach cancer. Scared by the fact that my grandmother wouldn’t be around for very long, I kept postponing my trip to Baltimore. Everyday I’d tell my ma, “I’ll be there tomorrow. I promise.”
Finally, tired of my triflingness, mom called me on a Thursday morning and tensely said, “When are you coming down here?”
“I don’t know ma, I got something to do today and…”
Cutting me off, she screamed, “My mother is dying, and instead of lying down, she’s standing over the sink cleaning chitlins for you.” In my mind, I clearly saw grandma’s frail frame as she held tightly to the black handled knife and carefully cleaned filth from the swine.
That same afternoon, as the Greyhound bus zoomed down Route 40 towards downtown Baltimore, I thought about my grandma’s hands and the steaming pot of chitlins simmering on the stove.
Michael A. Gonzales writes for Vibe, Stop Smiling and New York magazine, and blogs at uptownlife.net. A Harlem native with a southern sensibility, he lives in Brooklyn.