Loved and reviled, chitterlings are the ultimate in soul food

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Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Dorine Williams holds up a bucket of chitterlings as LaMont Jones watches at E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant in Wilkinsburg one Sunday morning.
Click photo for larger image.
E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant
E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant is at 810 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg. It opens every day at 8 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 6 p.m. Sundays. 412-241-2769.

Usually when someone learns that I like eating chitterlings, the response is sort of a bemused disbelief.

"You like chitlins?"

The tone of the question suggests that delight in the taste of cooked and seasoned pig intestines is for the uncouth and uncultured.

It's easy to understand the disdain for chitterlings, or "chitlins," when you know the historical relationship between chitterlings and African-Americans. Slaves ate chitterlings to survive. Denied the more healthful cuts of meat enjoyed by slave masters and their families, blacks could either eat what was discarded or perish from hunger. Chitterlings were among the culinary cast-offs, but creative slave chefs found a way to make them palatable.

However, there were costs that are still being paid. Animal organs tend to be high in cholesterol, and diets high in cholesterol, fat and sodium -- salt was an easy seasoning for slaves to procure -- contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and other ailments. So it's no wonder that after centuries of diet staples such as chitterlings, African-Americans suffer from such medical conditions at disproportionately high rates.

Why, then, would people want to eat chitterlings? Because we like the acquired taste. And any potential long-term health consequences are mitigated if chitterlings, like anything else, are eaten in moderation.

In many ways, chitterlings have become as much a delicacy as escargots or foie gras. People of varied income levels and ethnic backgrounds enjoy chitterlings. Many grew up on them and appreciate them as a comfort food.

And while cleaning them is an odious, unpleasant task because of their strong odor and the fat, grit and even bits of corn that can take hours to scrape out, you don't have to deal with that if you leave the work to someone else. (In some regions, chitterlings are cooked and eaten only during months that include an "r," as in September through April, when temperatures are cooler and the strong odor is more tolerable.)

With salt, pepper and hot sauce on top and slaw, potato salad and cornbread on the side, chitterlings are a magnificent feast.

"There's a tradition for African-Americans to consume chitlins. They're definitely a good seller. People love 'em but don't want the trouble of cleaning 'em -- that's the bottom line," said Earl Williams Jr., owner of chitlins-serving E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant in Wilkinsburg.

The taste of chitterlings is indescribable. Their mild flavor, comparable to nothing else, seems to be defined by how they are seasoned. They are more tender than bacon and in some parts are called "wrinkle steaks."

I liked to eat chitterlings as a child, before I was old enough to understand what they were. And when I learned, it didn't matter. I was already smitten. My mother spent hours cleaning and cooking them, usually around the holidays. But I never paid attention, content to show up when she announced that dinner was ready and to greedily eye the large platter of hot chitterlings in the center of the dining table.

Given my mother's unusual cooking style -- a fusion of soul food, Southern cooking and gourmet cuisine -- chitterlings were just one item in a delectable repertoire that included such goodies as artichoke salad, tomato aspic, standing rib roast and her classic Chocolate Intrigue Cake. For my father, my six siblings and me, every meal was a satisfying experience.

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Rinsing is an important part of preparing chitlins.
Click photo for larger image.

As an adult heading into my 40s, I pay more attention to what I eat. I have a varied diet that includes significant amounts of organic and whole foods, and I stay away from things that disagree with my body. So I figure I'm allowed to indulge in chitterlings every now and then.

Knowing how much I love chitterlings, a friend told me last year about E.J.'s. I remembered the ages-old caution -- "You can't trust just anybody's chitlins!" -- but I was tired of relying on the kindness of church ladies. I needed a more convenient chitterling fix.

Mr. Williams said he serves about 400 pounds of chitterlings "in a slow week." His sister Dorine, who was taught by their grandmother to clean and cook them, arrives early in the morning to clean them and get them on the stove. They estimated that 60 pounds of raw, frozen chitterlings are reduced to half that amount after cleaning. And then those 30 pounds cook down to about 20 pounds.

Mr. Williams said the price of chitterlings has increased six times since E.J.'s opened in July 2003, most recently two weeks ago. In that time, he's increased prices just twice. The average price for a 10-pound bucket in a store ranges from $8.99 to $11.99 -- an interesting fact when you consider that stockyards and slaughterhouses used to give away chitterlings to anyone willing to carry them off (usually the poor).

Mr. Williams said people travel from as far as Ohio and West Virginia for his chitterlings, and from as near as a senior citizens' community up the street. Servings of 10 ounces and 20 ounces are $6.95 and $12.50, respectively, and a meal with two sides and bread is $9.25. Chitterlings are the top-selling item on a menu that also includes pig's feet, collard greens and occasional exotic, tasty dishes inspired by his Filipino mother.

Still, it's possible that chitterlings may become an obsolete food, especially in the North. Mr. Williams said most of his chitterling-eating customers are middle-aged or older. Many Pittsburghers under the age of 35 will tell you that they have never tasted chitterlings, and they don't intend to.

"I can't get past the odor" is a typical complaint. There are a range of ways to minimize the odor, from sprinkling cinnamon on top of uncooked chitterlings to adding onions and potatoes to the cooking water.

And Mr. Williams seems to have found success offering a dish that many customers want but few establishments are willing or able to offer.

"The main thing is, they're so time-consuming to clean," he said. "That's why most restaurants don't have them. My sister is really fast and really good. It's a lot for any restaurant to take on unless they have somebody that's dependable. You can't just have 'em every other week. When we tell customers they aren't done and they have to wait, they look at us like we're crazy."

Mr. Williams won't divulge his chitterlings recipe, which isn't surprising. So, here's one from my mother, as well as a recipe for a mouth-watering slaw that's the perfect complement.

CHITLINS

  • 5 pounds chitterlings
  • 1 thick slice green pepper
  • 1 small onion, peeled and halved
  • 2 to 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 hot red pepper pod
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

Place cleaned chitterlings in pot. Do not add water (they make their own).

In a cheesecloth bag, combine green pepper, onion, garlic cloves and red pepper pod. Place in pot, along with salt and  1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar for every 5 pounds of chitterlings. Bring to gentle boil. Reduce and simmer until fork-tender, possibly around 2 1/2 hours. Remove cheesecloth bag and serve.

-- Recipes by Kay G. Jones

SLAW THAT KEEPS

  • 1 large cabbage head
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 large green pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup vinegar
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Shred cabbage and arrange in a layer on chopped onion and green pepper. Pour 1 cup sugar on top. Set aside.

In a saucepan, combine vinegar, oil, salt, celery seed, dry mustard and 1 tablespoon sugar. Bring to boil and then pour over slaw. Do not stir. Refrigerate 12 hours. Toss before serving. (Keeps two weeks in refrigerator.)


Post-Gazette staff writer LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1469.


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