The English Origins of Chitlins

Pork chitterlings, or ‘chitlins’, along with items such as pigs’ feet and hog’s head cheese, are commonly associated with the diet of poor Southerners in the United States. They are also strongly associated with African American ‘soul food’. In 1966, the radical civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, coined the term ‘black power’ and his organisation put out a position paper on ‘The Basis of Black Power’. This paper claimed:

[T]he white people coming into the movement cannot relate to the black experience, cannot relate to the word “black,” cannot relate to the “nitty gritty,” cannot relate to the experience that brought such a word into existence, cannot relate to chitterlings, hog’s head cheese, pig feet, ham hocks, and cannot relate to slavery, because these things are not a part of their experience.

The notion that chitterlings, hog’s head cheese, pig feet, and ham hocks are not a part of the experience of white people is a strange one, but one can still encounter such views today. When the origins of chitterlings and associated foods of the South are examined, however, what emerges is that these are foods that, far from originating in African American culture – or even the wider Southern culture – are derived from the foodways of England.

References to chitterlings, brawn/souse (hog’s head cheese), and pig feet can be found in numerous English sources. Chitterlings appear in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary, for example, where they are referred to as ‘the guts or bowels, generally applied to those of beasts fit for food’. Similarly, ‘chitterlings’ is listed in A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838) as a word referring to ‘the small guts of hogs’. Hannah Glasse, in her deeply influential (in both Britain and the United States) book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) includes a recipe for calf’s chitterlings, with the instructions: ‘blanche and boil them like hog’s chitterlins’ (note the spelling) [p.43]. Glasse’s book also includes recipes for pickled pig’s feet and ears [p.82], as well as pig’s feet boiled in half a pint of water, a blade of mace, a little whole pepper, a bundle of sweet-herbs, and an onion [p.35]. Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) includes recipes for boiled pig’s feet with fried battered pig’s ears [p.280], as well as ‘Pig feet and ears to souse’, which also calls for battering and frying [p.305]. Charles Francatelli’s book A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) features recipes for baked pig’s head and pig’s feet, as well as a recipe for a ‘Pig’s Fry’, which ‘consists of the heart, liver, lights, and some of the chitterlings; these are to be first cut up in slices, then seasoned with pepper and salt, rolled in a little flour, and fried with some kind of grease in the frying-pan’.

As in the American South, chitterlings in England passed from being a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy to being seen as a poverty food. In Britain, the epicentre of chitterling consumption has traditionally been the South and South West of England, and this continues to this day. While many in Britain today have never heard of chitterlings, specialist meat suppliers in Devon, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire all offer chitterlings to their customers. In a 2012 BBC Magazine piece entitled ‘Forgotten food: 25 foods readers would like to revive’, a reader is quoted as offering: ‘Chitterlings, sweetbreads and fat bacon – my childhood foods in Gloucestershire’. A 1992 BBC report on the aftermath of riots in Bristol states: ‘It seemed the only people up and about that morning were heading for the butchers and mostly to buy strings of chitterling’. A 2015 Telegraph article on ‘Britain’s oldest family business’ (located in Bridport, Dorset) reports that its owner speaks with ‘a Dorset accent steeped in brawn and chitterlings’. ‘Shock as 200-year-old Bristol “institution” announces closure’ was a recent Bristol Post headline (September 2018). In the article, we read:

J.D. Brittan’s shop was a local institution which dates back to 1814, and was one of the few remaining traditional pork butchers in the region… The shop had some very loyal customers, some of whom would even walk or cycle for miles to buy Brittan’s faggots, pork ribs, cooked ham and chitterlings (cooked intestines which the firm supplied to butchers from Cornwall to Birmingham) as well as Bath Chaps [cooked pig’s cheek].

Reading accounts of the lives of elderly English men and women, we find chitterlings and other associated meats making an appearance. In his autobiography, Fred Slater writes of his childhood in the West Midlands:

On Friday afternoons in Darlaston there were queues of people carrying pots and basins outside Bailey’s Pork Butchers, waiting for hot tubs of chitterlings to arrive. Anatomically these are the cleaned and boiled small intestines of pigs, delicious eaten with really hot English mustard… Cow’s udder, chickens’ feet and pigs’ trotters were always for sale in the 1940s and 1950s…

Meanwhile, Storytelling with UK Centenarians (July 2010), includes the following account:

I was born into very poor circumstances in Smethwick, on the outskirts of Birmingham… I lived on bread and dripping, I don’t know how mother made the dripping but she used to put rosemary seeds on the top. It was called rosemary lard. Then she used to buy a pig’s face and boil it and scrape all the meat off the bones, press it and have it cold. It was called brawn. Mother would buy the cow’s udder- it’s a big piece of meat- and she’d boil it and boil it and boil it and then slice it. This is the sort of thing we lived on. This was how we survived. My parents didn’t grow their own vegetables. How they managed, I just don’t know. I remember the chitterlings. We ate eat things that we wouldn’t touch today, brains and very cheap offal. And you never left anything on your plate.

Clearly, then, there is an English tradition of chitterling-eating which dates back many centuries. The key locations in which chitterlings and other ‘variety meats’ were historically enjoyed include Devon, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Dorset, and Wiltshire. Looking at the areas from which servants were drawn in the colonial South (of which there are 17), we find that they came from Bristol (1st place in the list), Gloucester (3rd), Wiltshire (4th), Dorset (8th), and Devon (9th). So, a large group of white servants came to Virginia (and then the wider South) from areas that are strongly associated with chitterlings consumption. In these areas, to this day chitterlings are seasoned with vinegar and pepper, hot mustard, or a combination of both. That ‘chiltins’ in Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’ are served with cider vinegar and hot sauce can hardly be a coincidence.

While chitterlings came to be seen as a food of slaves and poor whites in the American South, and likewise became a poor man’s food in England, this was not always the case. As Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, notes:

There are instances in slave narratives where you come across masters beating slaves because they didn’t make it well enough for the master’s table. After Emancipation, chitlins eventually loses its prestige factor and is seen more as a poverty food.

While chitterlings did indeed take on the status of poverty food, this was far from a uniquely African American phenomenon. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 7, for example, we read:

White, rural Southerners of the 20th century celebrated chitterlings as both cultural emblem and nourishment. Active chitterling eating clubs like the Royal Order of Chitlin Eaters of Nashville, Tenn., and the Happy Chitlin eaters of Raleigh, NC, emerged by the middle of the century. The traditional song “Chitlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County” indicates the importance of chitlins to regional identity.

That song includes the lines:

Of all good things put before me
I think chittlins are the best
And when I press that dying pillow
Let chittlins by my last request

Meanwhile, the 1971 English song ‘Chitterling’ by Adge Cutler & The Wurzels includes the lines:

Chitterling, chitterling, chitterling
Chitterling is all I crave
Fill me up with chitterling
Think of all the cash you’ll save

Chitterlings, and associated variety meats, then, were firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic as a food of working class whites. Indeed, the white association with chitterlings is indisputable.

For example, according to Gov. Kerr Scott of North Carolina (1949-53), any man worthy of the honourific title ‘Country Squire’ (similar to a Kentucky Colonel) must have ‘a natural hankerin’ for chittlins’. Liz Williams of the The Southern Food & Beverage Museum notes:

If you’re Southern it is food. It’s not soul food. Whether you were a redneck or poor white trash, everybody ate that food. I still eat a lot of my greens with pickled pork and pig’s feet. It might have been poor people’s food but it was food.

Peyton Shepherd, a white Southerner from Alabama, writes:

We eat some questionable things on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line that others would balk at—pickled pigs feet, boiled peanuts, hog’s head cheese, gator meat—but nothing is quite as quintessentially Southern as chitlins. Chitlins are the intestines of a pig, boiled down, fried up, and served with apple cider vinegar and hot sauce.

In an article on Ernest Matthew Mickler, author of White Trash Cooking, we read:

Born at the edge of the swamps of northern Florida, Mr. Mickler said, he ”was raised without electricity until I was 18.” He acquired his appreciation for food from his mother, who, when she wasn’t pumping gas at her Edna Rae’s Grocery Store, was cooking up ”a big dinner of fried chitlins, a mess of turnip greens, enough hoe cakes for a Bible story, a wash pot full of swamp cabbage stew and two large Our Lord’s Scripture cakes.”’

Whites have long prepared and eaten chitterlings, or ‘chitlins’, on both sides of the Atlantic. In both contexts, chitterlings have fallen from grace, having been originally a prestigious dish enjoyed by the wealthy, but now more associated with the poor. It is indeed the case that ‘chitlins’ entered into the canon of African American soul food, but these were neither a slave nor African American invention. Chitterlings exist in the South (and by extension, in ‘soul food’) because they were an English dish, brought over by the Englishmen who originally settled the South.

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