Thanksgiving. Some time mid-afternoon I go to the kitchen for another Coke. The kitchen is noticeably quiet from the women who surrounded the table an hour earlier talking. In fact, no one is maintaining the cooking food. The bubbling pots simmering on the stove.
This is when it hits me: What is that smell?
I wish I was a better writer and could phrase this in a more subtle way but I am not and any other phrasing would only do disservice to what I experienced.
Something smelled like shit.
My first impulse was quickly check the trash cans since there was a small child on the premises and I have experienced my old roommate girlfriends who put dirty diapers in kitchen, and worse, bathroom trash cans. Proper disposal of diapers is to take them to an outside trash receptacle or toss them into a three foot ditch in the backyard, burn them and cover the remains in lime and earth. There was no diaper. The smell of butt asserole grew stronger and I was pretty sure the longer I stayed in the kitchen, years of my life were being stripped away.
Forget the Coke. I have to save myself.
I came back into the living room, my face obviously showing my puzzlement. You can’t just say, “What smells like shit in your house,” when you’re someone else’s guest and more importantly, it’s the house of your future in-laws.”
“Chitlins,” Christina answered to a question I didn’t need to vocalize. “That smell is the chitlins… or as they say… shitlins.”
A little background. My father grew up poor and black in Charlottesville VA. My mother came to the Unites States from Vietnam in 1972. My brother and I were raised in suburban Pennsylvania an hour outside of Philadelphia.
I’ve never had chitlins.
For those not in the know…
Chitterlings (often pronounced /ˈtʃɪtlɪnz/ and sometimes spelled chitlins or chittlins in vernacular) are the intestines and rectum of a pig that have been prepared as food. They are a type of offal. (From Wikipedia.org).
Yeah. They said rectum.
My father will tell you I am a picky eater and my father would be a liar. There are few things I won’t eat and there are steadfast rules to them. I don’t like the smell of fish sauce which, if you’re Vietnamese, you know is used in 98% of their meals. It’s like salt is to Americans. This is where my picky eater status came from because having a Vietnamese mother makes about 40% of your meals made with fish sauce. I don’t like wet vegetables. I’ll eat all the Brussels sprouts and lima beans you have. Cole Slaw I can deal with (although not my favorite). Spinach in salad, stuffed into a chicken, made into a tasty dip in a neat bowl made from bread… the line forms here. Cabbage and ham, spinach, and collard greens sopping on a plate… I’m out, more for you. I also don’t like meat on bones. This goes back to my not wanting to eat any animal that still looks like the animal. You know those movies where they roast a pig and it still has it’s head and an apple in its mouth. Nasty. If I am on the other side of the luau and someone brings me carvings off the pig, I’m fine. I just don’t want to watch someone carving hunks off an animal while it’s looking at me. I eat white meat mostly because the meat/bone ratio is in my favor. The same for ribs because there is one bone and I think of them more like meat popcicles.
I understand the history of black (and for that matter, poor) people in America. That Soul Food is derived from taking the leftovers after their masters had taken the best parts of the animal and making them into something edible. But also understand, this history isn’t derived by choice. It’s derived from necessity. Had they been offered chicken breasts and sirloin, I highly doubt they would have said, “No, that’s okay. We’re good eating the asshole out of this pig. It’s a little nutty but we’re cool.” I like having modern conveniences and part of that is not worrying about, and I quote, the “possibility of disease being spread when they have not been cleaned or cooked properly. These diseases/bacteria include E. Coli and Yersinia enterocolitica, as well as Salmonella. Chitterlings must be soaked and rinsed thoroughly in several different cycles of cool water, and repeatedly picked clean by hand, removing extra fat and specks of fecal matter because the part of the pig the ‘chitlins’ come from includes intestinal polyps and the last few inches before the pig’s rectum.”
Yeah. They said fecal matter. They even hyperlinked to an entry on it so we’re all on the same page.
I have no love of animals. I have no line for “these are the cute ones and are off limits.” I’ll eat a koala panini sandwich or General Tso’s penguin if you stir-fry it right. I draw the line at primates because I think eating a monkey is too close to eating people, Intelligent Design be damned. I sincerely believe there are animals put on this planet for me to eat because God made them tasty and stupid. There is a reason we don’t eat cheetahs. They’re fast. There is no bear at the Super Target because they’re cranky and dangerous. Silverback gorillas may taste like cheesecake but I won’t be the guy who finds out. God gave chickens wings and the inability to use them. Turkeys are so dumb they’ll drown in rain looking up trying to figure out what it is. Cows are so stupid you can push them over while they’re sleeping. And God made them delicious and made me smarter than all of them and to stack the deck even more in my favor, gave me opposable thumbs, the intelligence to control fire and invent Heinz 57 sauce.
Billy Green is a family friend of Natalie’s parents. He a large boisterous bear of a man who bleeds garnet and gold, evident by his family’s clothing (including their Florida State socks) and his quickness to wipe his feet repeatedly on the Gator doormat at Natalie’s parent’s home. He found out about my chitlin experience and quickly called me out on it.
“Have you ever tried it,” he offered.
I couldn’t stand to be in the kitchen while they were cooking. How can I put them in a plate eight inched from my face?
“You eat sausage and hot dogs,” he asked. His voice booming and intimidating.
“Well that’s the same thing,” Billy said.
“No. Hot dogs and sausage smell delicious,” I explained. They don’t smell like ass. Nobody’s ever tried to burn their clothes after being in a room with hot dogs.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Pennsylvania,” I answered.
“Well that’s your problem.”
He could be right. Chitlins, like Silverback Gorillas, might taste like cheesecake… but I won’t be the one who finds out.