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“I like chitlins…I like pig’s FEET!”

January 29, 2010

(Not) Cooking with Jay

A little backstory…

I don’t know who to blame. Certainly not myself. Never would I do that. Should I point a finger at all those travel/cooking/travel-cooking/eating-travel/travel-eating/eating-eating shows that I can’t not watch? Do I blame Andrew Zimmern? Tony Bourdain? Man vs. Wild? Man vs. Food? Gluttony vs. Good Sense? Maybe I should blame my own father, who has always been game to nosh on bizarre game–or weirder parts of bizarre game. Maybe I watched Friday too much in college.

At any rate, between my culinarily adventurous upbringing (I’ve eaten cow brains, but not bull balls, for instance; a girl’s gotta have her standards), my love of cooking, and all the exotic offal being served up on these shows (with no on-screen deaths thus far), the time seemed ripe for me to sack up and make something I’ve always wanted to try: chitterlings (more commonly known as “chitlins”).

Chitterlings, for the blessedly unaware, are hog intestines that have been cleaned, removed of “debris” and excess fat, and then cooked for several hours to make them tender. I’ll admit that this whole enterprise sounded dubious from the beginning. But, I thought, with the right recipe and care, I might just come up with something delicious, if off the beaten path, and inexpensive. I had a whole menu planned out: Creole chitlins with smoked-ham-hock collard greens, coconut rice, cucumber salad, and cornbread. Sounds pretty good on paper, eh? I had a semi from the alliteration alone.

I did everything right. I had a colorful array of spices and vegetables cut up in uniform pieces. I had ten pounds of chitlins that I had gotten on sale.  I followed all instructions. I had an opened mind and an empty stomach. I had a wife who was willing to at least give ’em a shot.

But the experiment failed. Horribly. We never touched the chitlins once they were ready, several hours after prep began. In fact, the minute the pot was cool enough to touch, I took them outside and placed them, pot and all, about 75 yards away from my house. When I came back inside, I was pretty sure my gentle wife was going to punch me in the face (she explained later that she would have punched me in the throat, but the temporary lack of oxygen would have meant sweet relief for me, so she decided agin it).

Wha’ happen?

Well, shit happened. All too literally. That is to say: chitlins are, by nature, fundamentally shitty (hee hee). I knew this going into this experiment, but I didn’t know how nasty they could be.

They smelled very strongly of the stockyard right out of the tub they came in. But, with multiple rinses and soaks in salted water, I figured they’d be tamed enough. Nothing prepared me for the olfactory onslaught of boiling and simmering them. Mother of Mercy, hear my prayer.

In short: they smell like the very Essence of Hog Anus when raw, they smell like a big, putrid pile of pigshit when they are boiling down, and they smell like a fly-blown porcine posterior when they are simmering, no matter how much garlic, red pepper, paprika, onion, celery, green pepper, potato, sugar, or vinegar you cook them in (on second thought, maybe the vinegar didn’t help much–but it was in the recipe!). No matter how many fearful prayers you offer to estranged, prankster god(s) or their queerly virginal Maters.

My house reeked of pigpen (no, not that Pigpen. Or that Pigpen. Unfortunately). My clothes reeked of pigpen. I had hog taste in my mouth, nose, and throat. I thought my wife was going to leave me, and I wasn’t sure I’d fight it, given the horror I had brought into our home. I wanted to dig a deep hole, drop the chitlin pot in it, and fill it with concrete, nuclear-waste-style (my own Yucca of Yuck). I wanted to burn my clothes, shave my head, and run through a decon shower, like in The Hot Zone.  All I know is that purposeful dudes in HAZMAT suits should have broken down our door to either save us or enact a deserved scorched-earth policy. You think I’m being hyperbolic? I invite you to give it a shot yourselves. If I don’t hear from you in a week, I’m coming over, and I’m ridin’ in heavy.

But.

Even though this wasn’t a success, and although food was wasted (which I hate), I learned a couple valuable things in this process.

The first is that chitlins smell, of course (since I lost my resolve to try them at any price with about 30 minutes to go before they were ready. I sadly cannot tell you how they tasted).

The second (and most important) thing I took away from this: people used to have to work very hard to draw all the sustenance they could from every part of the animals they killed. This meant spending a long time washing and cleaning less-attractive cuts of meat, and it meant spending quite a bit of time cooking these down to chewable/edible states. I am sincerely thankful that I do not have to eat or do these things out of dire necessity, and that a failed “experiment” doesn’t mean that I or my family must go to bed with rumbling stomachs. While I make jokes and take a light tone, I offer my thanks and respect to have “lucked” my way into where I am in this Big, Rigged Card Game.

* * *

I thought I’d never meet a bit of pork that I didn’t like, and I was wrong. But now I’m wiser (if stankier). As the Great Poet Alanis said: you live, you learn.

On a brighter note: the collards (and the rest of the meal) were delicious, the house aired out in a few hours, and my wife is still with me. But, she’s already warned me that, if I make Lingua de Res again, she will be staying at her parents’ indefinitely. It’s a fair cop.

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3 Comments
  1. T. Stump permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:31 pm

    Wow! Now THAT’s what I call a first-person food story!

    The holy grail of American southern cooking reasserts its dominance over us, like a stinkier second verse of “Synchronicity II”.

    Knowing your tolerance for the less popular dining choices, and a willingness to risk a healthy stomach for the thrill of the moment (case in point – the 78-or-so oysters at that Corpus Christi diner), if it’s too strong for you, than I best not even look at them.

  2. T3h F0OL permalink
    January 31, 2010 12:27 am

    I too have always wanted to try “chitlins.” But the one opportunity I had, the smell killed it for me as well. Many an off the beaten path item has touched my palate, including but not limited to, fish eyes, monk fish liver, buffalo & bull fries, cow brain, &, ladies and gents: “1000 year old” eggs. *shiver*

    I salute your efforts to prepare such an interesting meal.

  3. April 12, 2013 8:31 am

    Fascinating, ronald. And poetic.

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