The cleaning process was the first thing we got wrong. The entire house smelled like shit. It was an overpowering revulsion that filled my body as we walked through the front door after another day of school. My mom was cooking chitlins.
Chitlins are pig assholes and intestines. Chitlins are a staple of African American cuisine. Chitlins make your kitchen smell like fiery piles of excrement and garbage. The pig guts had this rainbow luminescent shine over their slick surface. The kitchen countertop looked like it had been overrun with giant clay worms covered in viscous oil. My mom had cleaned the guts well enough so that we wouldn’t die from eating it, but she had forgot about cleaning it out to avoid that infamous chitlins smell. I could tell that my Dad was slightly annoyed at her oversight.
My parents thought it was time me and my sister tried chitlins. And they wanted to surprise us with the horror of our heritage. There was collard greens, spices, and other parts of the pig laid out for us to see in all their glory. Hog maws, feet, snouts, chunks of ham. This was going to be the real southern experience. My father –always happy to play family historian- let us in our on the secret. During slavery times in America, these were the pieces that were left from the master’s butcher. After the ham, bacon, and finer sides of meat had been striped, there were the leftovers. The feet, snouts, eyes, assholes, and guts. Blacks would get the most of the guts because there was so much to cook. Pigs are filthy animals so the preparation of chitlins involved as much cleaning as cooking. I held my nose as my Dad explained the beauty of taking the worst and turning it into the bests. Chitlins were supposed to be tasty, but it seemed like that the process of cooking the guts involved throwing in as many different flavors, meets, and spices to remove any lingering reminders of what was being served.
My sister was skeptical. I was horrified. Neither one of us wanted any part of chitlins. My parents assured us that this was delicious. They recounted stories of growing up on chitlins, being excited for those special times every year when they would devour the rubbery, salty, pig innards. It was a rite of passage.
My head was reeling from not only the smell but now the thought that I would be forced to eat this concoction that was not bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. I went to my room and closed the door. I shoved blankets under the opening to block the stench. I buried my face in a pillow and inhaled deeply. I screamed into the fluffy, perfume-scented bedspread.
When the chitlins were ready, I was summoned to the dinner table. My father handed me a big heaping plate of my nightmare. The entrails were now boiled into withered submission and looked like a fried and frizzy clay scraps. The residual odor from the cooking process was still so strong that it was hard to smell anything else but dark, dense, putrescent scent. I lifted the plate to my nose and sniffed it like a suspicious dog. The worst of the odor had been buried beneath the spices, greens, and ham bits. There was just a faint whiff of boiled shit.
I looked at my parent’s face who smiled and gave an encouraging ‘go ahead.’ My sister sneered, I hesitated. Seeking to encourage us, they both took big heaps of chitlins and shoved it into their mouths, while making orgasmic sounds of pleasure.
I lifted the tiniest shred of chitlin on to my fork. And then I carefully placed greens, ham, and anything I could stack with my fingers on top of my ancestor’s food. I held my breath and shoved the fork into my mouth. I chewed and swished the food around until my tongue grazed across the rubbery chitlin. Then I bit into it.
It didn’t taste awful. It didn’t even taste like its smell. It was just meat taffy. My next fork-load had a bit more chitlins, and with each subsequent try I became more bold. By the end of the meal, my sister and I were smiling and enjoying ourselves. Who knew assholes and innards could be so savory? We may have had chitlins one more time in my life. My mom was fixing a meal for some family members. When my cousins arrived they were shocked and excited.
Aunty Yvonne, you cook chitlins?
My mom shushed them and laughed like it was an absurd questions.