The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.

Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens.[1] Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.[4]

Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’.[5] In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…

They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.

Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.

Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:

The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.[8]

In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:

Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.[13]

‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:

In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.[14]

The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’.[15] As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:

On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.[16]

Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.[17]

This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’.[18] Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:

These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.[19]

Likewise:

Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.[20]

Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.[21]

The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).[22]

No, Coffee Did Not Come to the United States from Africa

National Geographic is a widely respected magazine with a large readership, and it is generally perceived to be a good source of information. An article that calls this perception into doubt can be found on its website, titled ‘5 African Foods You Thought Were American’.

According to this article:

It’s likely that something you ate or drank today was first brought to North America by slaves…

[H]ow often do we consider, when selecting the ripest melon for our summer fruit salad, or ordering a café latte with breakfast, that these things originated and flourished on a completely different continent? Even more important, how often do we consider that it was an enslaved population that brought them here?

The claim that slaves ‘brought’ plants and food to America is popular and widely repeated. As Tim Carman notes in a piece for the Washington Post:

And those West Africans, the literature so often notes, brought their food with them — except they didn’t, as food writer John Thorne so eloquently points out in his now-classic essay on hoppin’ John in the “Serious Pig” collection (North Point Press, 1996): “The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories. If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened) — there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.”

Likewise, Stephanie Butler points out in article for the History Channel website that ‘[n]ewly abducted Africans were lucky to have clothes on their backs, and they certainly weren’t encouraged or even allowed to bring sacks of planting grain along with them’.

So much, then, for the claim of American food and drink that ‘an enslaved population brought them here’.

The National Geographic article includes coffee as a beverage supposedly originating with the enslaved population, which is frankly bizarre.

It is generally agreed that coffee first arrived on American soil in 1607 when Captain John Smith, founder of the Colony of Virginia, introduced it to other settlers of Jamestown. Smith, an English explorer, had first encountered the drink he called ‘coffa’ while in Turkey, and referred to it as ‘their best drink’.

The history of the drinking of coffee is somewhat murky (there are various legends attached to it), although its origins are generally held to be in Ethiopia. The drink became very popular in the Middle East:

By the 16th century, coffee was the beverage of choice in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, its reputation as the ‘wine of Araby’ boosted no end by the thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the Muslim world. Yemeni merchants took coffee home from Ethiopia and began to grow it for themselves. It was prized by Sufis in Yemen who used the drink to aid concentration and as a spiritual intoxicant. They also used it to keep themselves alert during their nighttime devotions.

From there, coffee drinking spread through the Balkans and Italy and into the rest of Europe.

The National Geographic article cites UCLA professor of Geography Judith Carney, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Carney makes the following claims:

How to take a coffee bean, know when and how roast it, and turn it into a delicious beverage involved a deep cultural knowledge system of growing and brewing varieties from the Ethiopian highlands where it originated. When Europeans reached East Africa, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates in the 16th century, they encountered coffee houses and culture around the drink. But given the racial prejudice against Africans honed during the transatlantic slave trade—and the fact that coffee had become so central to Muslim culture—Europeans attributed the art of making the drink and the profusion of coffee houses to Muslim societies.

The reference to European ‘racial prejudice against Africans’ as being a reason why coffee’s origins were seen as lying in the Muslim nations seems dubious at best. Europeans encountered coffee drinking during their travels in Muslim countries, so it is entirely natural that they would have associated the drink with the places in which they were introduced to it. In all likelihood, they would have had no idea of its origins in Ethiopia. Why would they? Captain Smith undoubtedly identified coffee as a Turkish drink because he drank it in Turkey, not because he was conspiring to hide its origins in Africa. And when it comes to Carney’s certainty that it was Ethiopians who first discovered ‘[h]ow to take a coffee bean, know when and how roast it, and turn it into a delicious beverage’, this is somewhat fanciful. As Giorgio Milos notes:

The first person known to write about coffee was a Persian physician and philosopher named Rhazes or Razi (850 to 922 AD), who characterized it as a medicine. He described a beverage called bunchum, prepared with an infusion of a fruit called bunn—the Ethiopian name for a coffee cherry. Other early writings establish Yemen, on the southern part of Arabian Peninsula, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, as home to the first coffee plantations starting in the early 15th century. Coffee plants were brought over from Ethiopia, Yemen lacking its own indigenous coffee. There, Sufi monks prepared an infusion of coffee cherry leaves to stay awake and pray through the night. The first real roasting and grinding activities likely happened here.

So, contra National Geographic, coffee drinking in America has absolutely nothing to do with slaves ‘bringing’ coffee to its shores, and everything to do with a European settler who had ‘discovered’ the drink in Turkey. The drink may indeed originate in Africa – although this is far from definitively established, even though the bean it is made from certainly does – but it is not thanks to Africans – enslaved or otherwise – that it became a popular drink in the United States. For that, we can thank the Boston Tea Party in 1773, which led to a shift from tea to coffee drinking, assisted by the cultivation of coffee plants by the Dutch.

(As for the reference to café latte in the National Geographic article, this drink only became widely popular in the US in the early 1990s, and is obviously of Italian origin.)

The English Roots of Southern Barbecue

Long before the birth of Southern barbecue, wealthy Englishmen were enjoying smoked meats and highly spiced foods. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of medieval English cuisine, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’.

The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’.

Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

So, the cuisine of wealthy medieval Englishmen included smoked meats, spice blends, slow-roasted whole hogs, and seasoned basting sauces. Such tastes continued amongst the wealthy into the early modern period and consequently influenced the cuisine of the colonies.

After English colonists settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they introduced pigs to the region. In a short time, feral pigs were widely available and the centrality of pork to Southern cuisine was established:

By 1614, feral animals were seemingly everywhere. Ralph Hamor wrote that there were “infinite hogs in herds all over the woods”… In 1619, the Virginia Company confirmed that there were “some horses” and an “infinite number of swine broken out into the woods.”

The English colonists of Virginia, then, had an abundance of pigs and a taste for smoked meats and seasonings, and it was here that Southern barbecue developed:

[I]t was in Virginia and in the Carolinas that barbecue as we know it would begin to evolve. In Virginia, British colonists observed the Native American method of drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire and soon married this method to their own interest in spit-cooking hogs and other small animals.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The idea of the barbecue as a social occasion also developed in Virginia, and arguably has echoes of the medieval English nobility’s feasts, with roasted hogs and revelry:

Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well… As the wealth of Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry…

When Virginians settled North Carolina, known at the time as ‘Virginia’s Southern Plantation’, they took their love of whole-hog barbecue with them. While this style of barbecue is today most commonly associated with North Carolina, its roots lie in the English colony of Virginia, and, as Joseph R. Haynes writes:

Just as Virginia hospitality would spread to become southern hospitality and Virginia smoked ham would spread to become country ham, so would Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South to become southern barbecue.

And this Southern barbecue, while making use of Native American smoking techniques and African slaves for its preparation, was deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of the landed gentry of England.

The English Origins of Chitlins, Pig Feet, and other Variety Meats

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.[1] 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.[2]

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. A typical example reads as follows:

Soul food is a triumph of the unconquerable spirit of African-Americans, which is celebrated each February during Black History Month.

Slaves were forced to eat the animal parts their masters threw away. They cleaned and cooked pig intestines and called them “chitterlings.” They took the butts of oxen and christened them “ox tails.” Same thing for pigs’ tails, pigs’ feet, chicken necks, smoked neck bones, hog jowls and gizzards.[3]

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, as can recipes. 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’.[4] Similarly, ‘chitterlings’ is listed in A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838) as a word referring to ‘the small guts of hogs’.[5] The 18th century English cookery book Dictionarium Domesticum, being a new and compleat houshold [sic] dictionary, for the use both of city and country (1736) includes recipes for hog’s chitterlings, hog’s head cheese, and hog’s feet and ears:

CHITTERLINGS.

When the chitterlings are made, put them into a kettle of water with slices of onion, an onion stuck with cloves, two bay leaves, a little leaf fat out the hogs belly; boil them gently and scum them well, and then pour in a glass or two of white wine; let them stand in the fame liquor till they are cold; then take them out carefully, not to break them.

They are usually broild on a gridion [sic] with paper under them.[6]

To make a good Dish of a HOGS-HEAD.

Split the head, take out the brains, cut off the ears and lay it in water for a day, then boil it till all the bones come easily out, then pull off the skin as whole as you can, because it is to be laid both under and over it, chop it small as quick as you can while it is hot; season it with salt, pepper, mace and nutmeg ; press it down into a venison or pudding-pan; lay the skin over and under it, cover and press it down very close, and when it is quite cold it will turn out and cut as close as a cheese; you may put salt and vinegar to some of the liquor it was boiled in, and in that pickle keep it.

It may be eaten with vinegar and butter, and it is better than brawn, if the head you make it of be large and fat.[7]

To dress HOGS-FEET and EARS.

Clean them nicely, put them into a pot with a bay leaf and a large onion, with as much water as will cover them; season it with salt and a little pepper; bake them with houshold bread; keep them in this pickle till you want to use them; then take them out and cut them in handsome pieces and fry them. For sauce take three spoonfuls of the pickle, shake in some flour, a bit of butter, and a spoonful of mustard, lay the ears in the middle, the feet, round them and pour the sauce over them.[8]

That recipes such as these made it into cookery books is unsurprising, for the wealthy elite of 18th Century England were enthusiastic eaters of chitterlings, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ ears. Cookery books written by and for those working in their kitchens make this clear.

Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) was influential both in England and in the United States: Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all owned copies, with Franklin enjoying it so much that he brought it with him when he travelled to France.[9] Glasse grew up on an English country estate and went on to be a cook in an earl’s household. Her childhood foods were luxurious and in her job she was cooking for the upper classes, so the dishes in her book can hardly be seen as poverty foods.

Among the many entries in Glasse’s book, we find a recipe for calf’s chitterlings, with the instructions: ‘blanche and boil them like hog’s chitterlins’ (note the spelling)[10], as well as instructions for the cooking of pigs’ feet and ears. Glasse’s entries include, for example, ‘To dress pig’s petty-toes’.[11] While this might sound like Glasse was referring to the small toes of pigs, in fact, as the Oxford Reference Dictionary notes: ‘The term pettitoes is now virtually obsolete, but for a couple of hundred years before its demise it was used for “pigs’ trotters”‘.[12] So, Glasse’s recipe was for pigs’ feet, and calls for them to be boiled in ‘half a pint of water, a blade of mace, a little whole pepper, a bundle of sweet herbs, and an onion’. Mace is described by Peggy Trowbridge Filippone as tasting like a combination of cinnamon and pepper and a more pungent version of nutmeg.[13] Another entry in Glasse’s book is titled ‘To preserve or pickle Pigs Feet and Ears’,[14] and calls for pigs’ feet and ears to be boiled in water with bay leaves. Cloves, mace, whole pepper and ginger, coriander seed, salt, Rhenish wine, more bay leaves, and a bunch of sweet herbs are then to be added to the pot and the feet and ears ‘boil[ed] softly, till they are very tender’.

Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was not only a significant work in England for, along with Hannah Glasse’s book, it was also one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[15] In Raffald’s book, we find recipes titled ‘To ragoo piggs feet and ears’ and ‘To souse pigs feet and ears’. A ‘ragoo’ here refers to a ‘ragout’, a stew whose name is derived from the French word ragoût. In Raffald’s recipe,[16] the pigs’ feet and ears are first fried in batter and then finished in a beef gravy seasoned with lemon pickle and mushroom catsup (catsup, now known as ketchup, was invented in England and from there became popular in the United States, with mushroom eventually being overtaken by tomato as the main ingredient of choice). Raffald describes this fried pigs’ feet and ears dish as ‘a pretty corner dish for dinner’. Raffald’s ‘To souse pigs feet and ears’ recipe,[17] meanwhile, calls for the feet and ears to be boiled until tender, then pickled in salted water until they are required. The feet and ears are to be dipped in a flour and eggs batter, then fried ‘a good brown’ and served with melted butter.

As for oxtails, another supposed slave innovation, they have in fact been a standard cut of meat in British butchers’ shops for centuries. Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), for example, offers the following recipe:

Stewed ox-tails

They should be sent from the butcher ready jointed. Soak and wash them well, cut them into joints or into lengths of two or three joints, and cover them with cold broth or water. As soon as they boil remove the scum, and add a half-teaspoonful of salt or as much more as may be needed, and a little common pepper or cayenne, an onion stuck with half a dozen cloves, two or three small carrots, and a branch or two of parsley. When these have simmered for two hours and a quarter, try the meat with a fork, and should it not be perfectly tender, let it remain over the fire until it is so. Ox-tails sometimes require nearly or quite three hours stewing: they may be served with the vegetables, or with the gravy strained from them, and thickened like the English stew of the present chapter.

Oxtails, 2; water or broth to cover them; salt, 1/2 teaspoonful, or more; little pepper or cayenne; onion, 1; cloves, 6; carrots, 2 or 3 ; parsley, 2 or 3 branches: 2 1/4 to 3 hours.[18]

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’.[19] Chitterlings in England had passed from being a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy to being seen as a poverty food, as they also had in the Southern United States (although pigs’ feet and ears continued to appear in cookery books aimed at the wealthy throughout the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic).

In Britain, the epicentre of chitterling consumption has traditionally been the South and South West of England, and this continues to this day.[20] While many in Britain today have never heard of chitterlings, specialist meat suppliers in Devon,[21] Gloucestershire,[22] and Wiltshire[23] 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’.[24] 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’.[25] 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’.[26] ‘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].[27]

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…[28]

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.[29]

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).[30] 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,[31] hot mustard,[32] or a combination of both.[33] That ‘chiltins’ in Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’ are served with cider vinegar and hot sauce can hardly be a coincidence.[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

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’.[37] 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.[38]

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.[39]

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.”’[40]

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, as have pigs’ feet and ears, hog’s head cheese, and brawn. It is indeed the case that ‘chitlins’ entered into the canon of African American soul food, along with pigs’ feet and ears, hog’s head cheese, and so on, but these were neither a slave nor African American invention. Chitterlings and other variety meats exist in the South (and by extension, in ‘soul food’) because they were English dishes, brought over by the Englishmen who originally settled the South.