A Culinary Adventure
I'd wanted to try them for 30 years, ever since I was at a semi-formal dinner in middle Tennessee where my great-uncle Leonard Neely was holding court. Uncle Len was born and raised in Williamson County, but lived in California, where it's a lot more fun to be a Tennessean than it is in Tennessee.
Picture a taller, balder Nelson Rockefeller in an Italian suit and a pencil-thin mustache who lives his life doing impressions of Davy Crockett as Foghorn Leghorn, and maybe you'll have some approximation of Uncle Len. An inventor who made a fortune in the oil industry, he lived a life more glamorously extravagant than any civil engineer has a right to expect. He boasted of riding Harleys with a motorcycle gang in California and about bagging wildebeest in Africa. He enjoyed showing off the watch that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had presented him in appreciation for some unspecified services I was always afraid to press him about. At least I knew he was with the good guys during World War II, when he constructed landing fields for Allied planes on Pacific islands.
Anyway, in Spain, in Africa, in Italy, in California, Uncle Len enjoyed playing the token Southerner. He stayed in character even when he was in the South. Uncle Len out-Southerned everybody in the room.
That's in spite of the fact that he spent most of his life in Berkeley, Calif. He mostly liked Northern California, but he observed some shortcomings, and was happy to share them. He said that in Berkeley you couldn't buy catfish whole, with heads attached, which for him was the only way to eat them. He also complained that in Berkeley it was very hard to find good chitlins.
When he talked about loving chitlins when I was a kid, I remember witnessing the disbelieving awe around the table that an elderly, distinguished-looking man in a nice pin-striped suit and a pencil-thin mustache would be loudly extolling the virtues of eating pig intestines. From that moment I wanted to try chitlins too, partly so that Uncle Len and I would have one thing in common beside our last name and partly so that people would regard me with the same awe. For 30 years I wanted to. Recently, I did.
I found a recipe in the Southern Cookbook, which included a recipe for "chitterlings" with some obvious misgivings. They called it "a recipe." Not a good recipe, necessarily, just "a recipe." Boil them in spices for a long time, then fry them in batter and deep fat. I figured I could handle that.
So I went to Kroger's. Afraid to ask, I looked around until I found it, a plastic bucket full of chitlins for nine bucks. It cost more than I expected. Moreover, it was a good 10 pounds, a much larger volume than I expected. What if I just ate a little? What would I do with the rest? Bury it?
I figured it would be much safer to leave the details to the professionals. I went to a place in East Knoxville that's allegedly "world famous" for its chitlins. Apparently it's all they sell there. I'd driven by the place for years. I'd gotten out of my car and walked by it and peered in curiously. Once I even knocked on the door and was half-relieved to find the place closed.
On a recent Saturday evening, though, I went back, and I walked right inside.
My first surprise was the prices. I always thought people ate chitlins in large part because they were cheap, the byproducts of the production of more popular pork cuts. However, there was nothing on the menu for less than $8.50; that dish, called the "Little Sister," was basically a half-pound of chitlins, at about a dollar an ounce. For those of us who tend to judge restaurants by the cheapest thing on the menu surely I'm not the only one this chitlin restaurant may be the most expensive establishment in town. You could order chitlins with spaghetti, but I didn't. That may have been a mistake, but my thinking was that spaghetti's a little on the intestinal side already. Serving it together with chitlins seems somehow redundant. Anyway, even without the spaghetti, two side dishes came with it: a hot red pepper a little larger than a golf ball, and a small piece of cornbread.
My second surprise was that the chitlins weren't fried in batter, as I'd read about in that cookbook that had dared to publish a chitlins recipe. They were just boiled, and heaped wet on the Styrofoam plate.
I tried to look as if it was exactly what I expected, took the plastic fork provided, and dug in. It's fair to say I have never tasted anything like it. I don't expect to ever taste anything like it again. The taste is strong and unlike anything else. Except, maybe, kissing an unconscious fat person with rotten teeth.
I ate more, expecting to get it. I figured maybe it was a little like cigars. That is, you try one, you hate it, you try another, you hate it, you try another, you still hate it, but you try another one and say, "hey, not bad." And then maybe a few weeks later you find yourself craving it, and nothing else will do. With that in mind, I ate more and more plastic forkfuls of chitlins. I never got there.
I ate this uncommonly hot pepper just like I would have eaten a sweet peach on a hot day. It was fiery hot, but a great relief, and almost cleansed my palate for the next bite. I wished I'd had a dozen more hot peppers, and maybe some gin.
I left in awe of all the happy chitlin-eaters in the photo collage on the wall and of my late Uncle Len, even more so than when I was a kid.
Maybe in the future I will astonish Northerners by boasting of once having eaten chitlins. Maybe I'll even say I liked them.
Jack Neely writes for Metropulse, Knoxville's alternative weekly newspaper, where this article first appeared.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.