Why You Need to Try Chitlins

Love it or hate it, but you have to try it!

group of pink pigs
Photo: The AGE/Contributor/Getty Images

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. This utterly unique delicacy represents one of the earliest values of Southern cooking: Use everything you've got.

It's understandable to have a love-hate relationship with chitlins, or "chitterlings," as our neighbors up North might call them. They don't smell great when you first start to cook them, and yeah, it is admittedly a little weird to eat an animal's innards to that extent. But the true appeal of chitlins lies in the mentality behind it.

Chitlins come from a universal idea of waste not, want not. For centuries, cultures all around the world have had recipes for their own version of chitlins, using every piece of an animal they could manage—haggis in Scotland, ipaw in the Philippines, andouille in France. Historically, in the U.S., rich slaveholding families got first pick on the parts of a slaughtered pig (ever heard the phrase "livin' high on the hog?"). Consequently, chitlins were the parts of the pig left to slaves, along with the fatback, ears, and feet that also became featured facets of Southern cuisine. They remained a cultural staple, and cooking them became a show of culinary prowess, because they have to be cooked so carefully to be safely consumed.

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Chitlins are no longer as prominent a fixture in Southern cuisine as they used to be. Most people don't raise and kill their own meat, so preserving and using every edible part possible is no great concern. But that doesn't mean that there's no place for chitlins on the table in the modern South. It's still fairly common to see animal organs in meals, like beef liver and onions, and many families' Thanksgiving and Christmas food traditions still revolve around the use of turkey giblets.

Chitlins might not be a necessity, but they are certainly a delicacy, a piece of Southern history on display. So go ahead and indulge in this classic. You might hate it, you might love it, but hey—you'll never know until you try!

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