Late-Night Chitlins with Momma

By Audrey Petty
Published in Saveur, reprinted in Best Food Writing 2006 and Cornbread Nation 4

Ours came frozen solid in a red plastic bucket. Butchered and packaged by Armour. Ten pounds in all. Cleaned, they’d reduce to much less, not even filling my mother’s cast-iron pot.

We usually shared them in the wintertime, Momma and I. Negotiations regarding their appearance began weeks in advance, around the dinner table. My mother would tell my father she was considering fixing chitlins for the holidays. My father would groan, twist his mouth, and protest in vain.

“Why you got to be cooking them?”

My two sisters backed him up with exaggerated whimpers, calls for gas masks, threats to run away from home.

“I’ll cook them next Saturday,” Momma would say, suddenly matter-of-fact. Daddy would plan that next Saturday accordingly: out of the house for hours, in protest, then coming back with the Sunday papers, opening the living room windows wide before heading upstairs to read and watch football in his La-Z-Boy, behind a closed door.

My mother turned to me, smiling and winking. “You’ll help me eat them, won’t you?”

I nodded in time to my sisters’ gagging noises. I stuck my tongue out at anyone who cared.

I was actually a pleaser, plagued by the classic middle-child complex. With the exception of fierce bickering and the occasional smack-down match with my sisters, dissent tended to make me nervous. Maybe my love of chitlins all began with me feeling sorry for my mother. In terms of labor and attention, cooking proper chitlins is as involved as cooking paella or fufu or risotto Milanese. Cleaning them took hours. Hours. So I’d keep Momma company while she rinsed the tangles of pig intestines in the basement sink. And I’d sit with her in the kitchen once they’d simmered down to something that needed watching. By that time, the house was filled with their sharp scent. “Potatoes will absorb the odor,” Momma would insist during the negotiation phase. Everyone knew that absorb was too optimistic a word. The smell was pervasive—vinegary and slightly farmy. When one of my sisters would storm in, holding her nose, proclaiming her disgust, I’d puff out my bony chest and call her stupid.

I’d stay up late with Momma, and we’d eat the chitlins off of small saucers as a bedtime snack. For all their potent smell, their flavor was calm and subtle. They had a distinct taste; they didn’t remind me of anything. Their texture was pleasing, tender but not soft. My mother’s were never greasy, though I marveled at how the leftovers emerged from the fridge, congealed in a murky gelatin. Momma would warm up a few in a frying pan, and we’d douse them with hot sauce and put some cornbread on the side. They never failed to build a craving after the first bite. Precious, strange and furtive food, I longed for them even as I consumed them.

I am a first-generation Northerner. My mother was reared in a middle-class family in El Dorado, a boomtown in Southern Arkansas; my father, in a coal-mining camp in Alabama. The two met and fell in love in the late ‘50s, while students at Talladega (a historically black college in Alabama), married and then moved to Chicago. My sisters and I came of age in Hyde Park, at the time one of the city’s few intentionally racially integrated neighborhoods. My dearest friend was Jewish (and white). We shared Sassoon jeans, watermelon Now and Laters, Judy Blume books, a mania for Shawn Cassidy, and plenty of secrets. My mother grew to love Karyn, but in the first days of our acquaintance, her anxieties about our closeness showed itself. She had lots of questions about how I was treated by the Levins. Were they kind? Had they made me eat the matzo ball soup? Did Karyn have other black friends? What about her parents? Gradually it emerged: she was trying to prepare me for the prospect of rejection, once recalling to me how little white girls in El Dorado customarily grew out of their friendships with little black girls. At the time, my only response was confused irritation. Karyn was my best friend.

As my sisters and I reached adolescence, my parents became more visibly concerned about our assimilated ways. While the Jackson 5’s ABC had been our very first album and we still crowded around the television on Saturday afternoons to watch Soul Train, we also knew the entire content of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I even played air guitar. None of us showed much interest in attending a Talladega or a Howard or a Spelman. And, at seventeen I fell for a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. He also fell for me. On more than one occasion, my sisters and I were summoned to a dialogue that began with my father’s question: “Do you all know that you’re black?” As adults, my sisters and I laugh about it now. My parents do, too. But their uneasiness was real and deadly serious, and I’d sensed it for years. Maybe I ate chitlins to please Momma and Daddy.

My grandfathers died before I was born; my grandmothers, when I was quite young. I have missed their embraces, their indulgence, and seeing my face in theirs. I have especially missed their stories. The down-South tales my parents passed on to me and my sisters were rather limited. We’d hear about my Uncle Booker T. setting the mean goat after my father or how my mother’s nickname came to stick. We learned that my father, his siblings and his cousins worked the family farm in Columbus, Mississippi and how the sections of the farm had names. The Five Acre. The Melon Patch. The Prayer Cut. We learned that my mother’s father was a high school principal and an avid fisherman, and that my mother’s mother taught piano and Latin. My parents gave us their South as best they could: in their politesse and their hymns and verses. In their ways with words. They gave us only what they hoped would be nourishing: a sip of pot liquor for our growing bodies and black-eyed peas for good luck at New Year’s dinner.

I never saw anyone’s chitlins but my family’s when I was coming up. At least a few of my classmates must have eaten chitlins at home, but I, for one, never raised the subject. Chicago was a Great Migration city, where a wave black folks had begun arriving in the early 1900s and had been redlined to black belts on the South and West Sides. That was my story and the story of so many of my childhood friends. We all had roots and people down South. And we ate like it, too. I remember red beans and rice at Kim Odoms’s house, fried gizzards at LaTonya Mott’s, and my junior-high business teacher eating take-out rib tips from Ribs n’ Bibs during our fourth period typing class. I remember hot sauce on everything. But chitlins were their own category of soul food. Chitlins were straight-up country. If you called someone country, you were calling that someone out. Country meant backwoods, backwards, barefoot, ‘Bama-fied. K-U-N-T-R-E-E.
I once believed that my father didn’t like chitlins because of how they smelled. That was his core complaint, but as I got older, I began to contemplate my father’s childhood and I formulated a more complex theory. My father had eight brothers and sisters; his father was a miner and a preacher and his mother was a domestic worker (a fact I discovered only this year). I assumed that Daddy rejected chitlins as suffering food—a struggling people’s inheritance. It wasn’t until just this year that I finally learned the truth. “He had a bad plate of chitlins as a boy,” my mother told me. “He never got over it.”

When my mother cleaned our chitlins, she never failed to stress how important it was to clean them well. This meant washing them, one intestine at a time, with a mild saltwater solution. “You don’t just eat any old body’s chitlins.” I knew this rule by heart. I’ve eaten chitlins at the hands of my mother and my aunts Mary and Annie Bell (my father’s sisters, who would occasionally make a pot when we’d all gather for Christmas). When a cafeteria called Soul by the Pound opened and quickly closed down on State Street, my mother was not at all surprised. “Black people don’t live that way. Risk-taking for no reason at all. Flying from bungee cords or buying all you can eat chitlins made by God knows who.”

My mother has not cooked a pot of chitlins in fifteen years. Perhaps the ritual ended the year I lived in France and sorely missed Christmas with my family. My mother and I shared a good laugh when I told her about chitlins in France, how they called them andouillette de Lyon and topped them with dijon mustard. I smelled them before I saw them, in a Left Bank bistro. Et voila!—there they were, on a nearby plate, wrapped tightly as sausage. I trusted the chef at Les Fontaines, but I couldn’t imagine eating his chitlins. Not without my mother’s company. And not without Louisiana-style hot sauce as generous seasoning.
As my mother has gotten used to the idea of me going public with our chitlin habit, she’s reminded me that she cooked hers with onion and a green bell pepper or two, and she also splashed in cider vinegar to taste. I’ve learned how some people add white bread instead of potatoes for the odor. And I’ve shared Momma’s excitement about the new technology in chitlin processing. “They really clean them now. More expensive, but you don’t have to do all that work.”
She doesn’t have to ask me twice; we have a date for chitlins this coming December.