My extended family has a text thread that we use to stay in touch. Last week, the subject of Thanksgiving came up and we started talking about our respective menu plans.
Of course, we all agreed on the basics: dressing, mac and cheese and sweet potato pie. Those dishes have been part of our collective repertoire ever since my Alabama-born grandmother first made them. Even when we adjust the recipes to account for changing palates or dietary restrictions, that trio is part of every celebration, just as it is for so many other black families across the country.
No matter how far apart we all live, it keeps us connected to one another and to our shared roots. But there is one dish that is always up for debate, one dish that always seems to somehow both signal and widen the distance between us. Because, without prompting, one of my aunts made sure we all knew what would not be on her table: chitlins.
With that began the culture war that my family fights every year. On one side are the relatives who rail against the smell and texture of chitlins. After all, they remind us (in case we’d somehow forgotten), “chitlins” (or “chitterlings,” if you’re feeling fancy) is just another name for pig intestines. And on the other side are those relatives who grant everyone else’s points about smell and texture but find chitlins, especially when covered in Frank’s RedHot, delicious anyway. For them, it’s also about keeping up a tradition passed on by my grandmother, who learned from the people who came before her, who themselves learned from our enslaved ancestors, who had no choice but to eat them.
Personally, I always loved chitlins as a kid but don’t have any cravings for them now that my grandmother is no longer around to make them. So while I have not eaten them in years, I am not disgusted by them, either. Besides, there are plenty of foods in our shared culinary history that arguably taste worse than chitlins—okra being one of them—yet they don’t stir up the same passions. Part of the reason is the historical baggage that chitlins come with. They’re full of it! (I couldn’t help myself, sorry.)
Chitlins were scraps left by slave owners who kept the best parts of pigs to feast on themselves, forcing their human property to make something out of nothing. In contrast, dishes like okra have origins in West Africa, and their incorporation into our foodways showcases the degree to which enslaved men and women maintained connections to their ancestral homelands and passed those connections down through the generations. Which is why, even though both dishes have their origins in slavery, chitlins are (usually derisively) considered “slave food,” while okra is not.
Similarly, the name “chitlin circuit” conjures up memories of Jim Crow when black entertainers were excluded from white clubs and found opportunities to perform in black-owned establishments serving chitlins and other soul-food dishes. The contemporary invocation of such labels tends to be pejorative or at least carries the implication that they are something to move beyond (at the start of his career, for example, Tyler Perry had to “defend” his start on the modern chitlin circuit).
Now that we can make our own choices in what we eat, the message seems to be that we should. Now that we have increased access to higher art forms, we should pursue them. Chitlin discourse, then, is really a debate about how to be black in this country. Do we selectively incorporate our past traditions, leaving some firmly in the past, or do we embrace every part of them?
We are living through an interesting culinary moment that mirrors this debate. Restaurateurs like Marcus Samuelsson have made their mark “celebrating the roots of American cuisine” with upscale soul-food restaurants like the Harlem-based Red Rooster. But there is a certain amount of exclusivity in terms of what gets celebrated (and elevated): His menus feature collard greens and shrimp and grits with okra rather than chitlins or pig’s feet.
Meanwhile, the broader culinary world has embraced European and Asian “peasant food” as a source of fine-dining inspiration. For example, Mario Batali serves a pig foot “milanese” at Babbo, his award-winning Italian restaurant in the West Village neighborhood of New York City. And at Bad Saint—a Filipino restaurant in Washington, D.C., which Bon Appetit ranked as the No. 2 restaurant in America in 2016—patrons can order adobo with pig tails.
The growing popularity of these kinds of restaurants leads me to wonder: Is there room for chitlins at the table? In other words, is our most humble of dishes ready to be elevated, not just in our own minds, but in the food world as well?
In thinking about this, I learned about JuneBaby, a new restaurant in Seattle owned by Eduardo Jordan, a black chef with Southern roots who cut his teeth at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. The restaurant’s website acknowledges that “Southern food has always had and continues to have stereotypical connotations” but describes it as “a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.”
This is reflected in the fact that the chef has chosen to put chitlins on the menu. The restaurant’s website also comes with an encyclopedia that defines everything from “Africa” to “Thomas Jefferson” to provide his guests with an education in all that made the food and the people who created it worthy of starring roles.
Jordan’s approach strikes me as both meaningful and symbolic. Having experienced and mastered other, supposedly finer approaches, Jordan is someone who has not just returned to the familiar but also recognizes the beauty and refinement that was there all along.