Column – He’ll take his chitlins fried, not boiled
Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023
“By the time I had reached 10 years of age I had learned to plow, hoe, cuss, smoke rabbit tobacco, eat chitterlings, crackling bread, and do all the other work incident to the upkeep and maintenance of a farm.”
That rather colorful, and undoubtedly exaggerated, description of growing up on a farm was lifted from a column printed in the April 26, 1934, Smithfield Times. A South Carolinian named Gee McGee wrote several similarly lighthearted columns that Publisher Jesse Scott published that year.
What struck me was the reference to eating crackling bread and chitterlings or, as they are better known among country folk, “chitlins.” Like Mr. McGee, I ate crackling bread while growing up. In fact, it was one of my favorite fried treats, and I’ve eaten it recently when I could get my hands on some cracklings. Not so much, chitlins, however. In fact, we never ate them, probably because my mother didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
Chitlins, for the uninitiated, are hogs’ small intestines. They are precisely the same material used as natural casings for various sausages. As you might imagine, chitlins require a lot of cleaning, and I mean a lot!
I recall interviewing back in the 1980s a native of Germany who was Gwaltney of Smithfield’s casing specialist. He took me into the casings room, where squeezing out the contents of hog intestines was the first step in making casings, and was accomplished by running them through a machine that operated much like a vastly oversized wringer-style washing machine. From there, they were thoroughly washed and then salt cured to make much sought-after sausage casing.
I suspect my mother’s aversion to chitlins had to do with the cleaning, which she undoubtedly had helped with when growing up in Surry County. Knowing her family, I am confident that chitlins were carefully cleaned before being eaten, but it had to be an unpleasant task.
(Southern comedian, the late Jerry Clower, made famous the phrase that “I can prepare chitlins either way: stump whipped or creek slung.”)
I ran across another story this week that I wrote back in 1993. The state was tightening artesian well water discharge permits and I called Smithfield Foods Vice President Robert “Bo” Manly to ask how the rules might impact Foods.
He thought the company wouldn’t have any problem with its deep well permits but noted that, if it did, “we can stop processing chitterlings,” which, all joking aside, required 20% of all the water the company was withdrawing from local aquifers. Chitlins take a lot of washing.
Once they’re cleaned, chitlins have to be thoroughly cooked, and the odor they exude can be challenging for anyone not familiar with it. Next is the texture. Fried chitlins, which I’ve eaten and rather enjoyed, are not bad, but boiled chitlins are not terribly appealing to some folks, including me.
Still, chitlins have been an important part of our rural gastronomical heritage. A check of old Smithfield Times editions on Virginia Chronicle produced nearly 200 references to chitterlings and chitlins.
Many of those were grocery ads because chitlins were a staple in local supermarkets right up until the early years of this century. West’s Supermarket advertised a pound of Luter’s cooked chitterlings for 69 cents in 1958. By 1979, the price had climbed to $2.29.
Chitlins were listed among rationed foods during World War II. The Smithfield Times carried a list of rationed items in March 1943. Chitlins were valued at “four points” per pound. Only a few items, including pigs tails, ox tripe, pork brains and pork snouts, were counted lower on the scale.
The U.S. Air Force Service Journal ran a story that was shared with The Smithfield Times by Isle of Wight’s Fred Wilson in September 1944. Seems a North Carolina Air Force officer managed to take a jar of chitterlings (they were pickled back in the day) to England when he shipped out. When he found some other Carolinians and a few Virginians, they had a chitlin dinner. An attendee was quoted as saying, “Chitlins in London. Men, this is fittin’.”
The airmen expressed mock concern that Londoners who smelled the chitlins cooking would think Hitler had unleashed a secret weapon.
The chitlin tradition here was kept alive by churches, civic clubs and others. The Surry Pork, Peanut & Pine Festival featured chitlins, as far as I could determine, every year from the festival’s inception in 1976 until its demise in 2018.
Smithfield’s Elks Lodge sponsored a Chitlin Strut at the Morgart’s Beach FFA Camp for 13 years, beginning in 1984. That effort was the inspiration of legendary Smithfield Foods Vice President Charles Henry Gray.
And as late as the 1990s, the women of Christian Home Baptist Church were having chitlin dinners to raise funds for their church.
Chitlins have always enjoyed a colorful niche in country folklore, here and elsewhere.
One of my favorite stories involves a local hunt club, which periodically held a chitlin dinner. The story goes that Dr. Hugh Warren and town grocer and butcher James E. “Red” West rode together to the club dinner one night. When they had parked the car, Red handed Dr. Warren several kernels of corn and told him to stick them in his pocket.
As dinner was served and a bunch of hungry hunters dug into their chitlins, Red slipped a kernel of corn in his mouth, said something like “What on earth?” and spit it onto his plate. Dr. Warren took the cue and suddenly found a kernel as well.
The story has it that forks were heard as they dropped onto plates up and down the table, while the two practical jokers continued eating and enjoying their dinner.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.