What are chitlins? This may be the most polarizing holiday tradition in the South (2024)

SALLEY, S.C.– Mark Hartley is really trying. The sudden haltin his speech signalshe's thinking hard.

It isn'tbecause of bad cellreceptionwhere he lives, the backcountry some 40 miles southwest of Columbia – at least not this time.

Hartley's wrangling with aslipperyquestionfolks inSalley havebeen asked at least a ton of timesin the past 50years.This isa doozythat not even 10,000 people– like the population of this town25 times over– would know how to answer, either.

"Chitlins taste like...chitlins," Hartley said. "It's likea chitlin; it's not like pork skin. You don't fry them that hard. It's a chitlin. It's a chitlin..."

The act of defining a chitlin as, well, a chitlin isn't totally wrong. Hartley, who will be cooking thousands of pounds of the stuff Saturday during Salley's famousannual Chitlin Strut, may beonto something.

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Try this: Say "chitlin" out loud. Itsounds strange and funky, bold and strong. It's unusual. Chitlins taste that way, too: strange, funky, bold, strong, unusual.

Chitlins are, in fact,a gutsy culinary choice–they are the small intestines of a pig. The term is alsoa Southern-fried contraction of "chitterlings."

They are not for the faint of stomach.They take a lot of time and effort to clean and cook. They require patience and prowess.

And let's just say it'snot pleasant work. One can joke that if they are cooked for the holidays, the kitchen could smell like chitlins virtually through the New Year. They are a commitment that lasts after the plate is clean.

One thing, however, they've never been called: boring.

When it comes to chitlins, strong tastes and smells inspire similarly strong feelings and strong statements – like the longtime Salley saying that cooking chitlins stinks so much that leaves on nearby trees turn the other way.

People love them or hate them or won't even give them a try.

Take Hartley, who is also a city council member. He'll spend Saturdayrunningthe chitlin part of the Chitlin Strut. He's been working at the festival since he was a teenager.

But even Hartley hasn't eatena boiled chitlin, one of twoways it isservedto the thousands who come each year.

And for the fried ones on that menu?

"I've tasted them," he said. "I can't say I've ever made a meal of them."

Salley is the chitlin capital of the world

Since 1966, the Chitlin Strut has put Salley onthe map.

The event hasbeen celebrated in the pages of the Los Angeles Times,Southern Living and a Paris newspaper.Beloved South Carolina humorist William Price Fox titled a collectionafter the Strut. When he died in 2015, The New York Times extensively quoted his chitlins musings in his obituary.

As many as 40,000 people have packed these few blocks the Saturday after Thanksgiving,and they have come from as far away as Ireland, according to a South Carolina General Assembly resolution congratulating the town on the Strut's50th anniversary.

In recent years, that total has looked more like 15,000 to 20,000, many arriving from Greenville and Chester, South Carolina, and Georgia or Florida by way of bus or motorhome.

The other 364 days of the year, Salley is home to just 400-something people.Most either work the land borderingthe town limitsor atthe shops and businessesa few miles away.

A new mayor was elected earlier this month– LaDonna Hall. Shewon with 44 write-in votes.

The 40-year-old Salley native has never missed a Strut, she said.

"It makes us feel alive," Hall said. "It makes us feel good that people actually flock from all of these places."

The calendar in the city office has a coupleof things listed on November days, and they're all Strut-related. Strut shirts hang from the ceiling above.

A rack is filled with all the programs from all the Struts. The first year is twostapled pages. "Everybody invited," it reads on the cover.

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Salley calls itselfthe "Chitlin Capital of the World" on the event's website.There doesn't seem to be much competition. Clio, Alabama, has hosted something called the Chitlin Jamboree, but it's not as big or storiedasthe Strut.

There isn't a stoplight in Salley. Or a bank. Or a school. The old school building is still around; that's where the Chitlin Strut is. Students go to Wagener-Salley High School these daysabout eight miles north.

Thepost office is still open, too, but that's about it on the main block.

Why Salley does the Strut

By 1966,Salley, a promising whistle–stopthat got its first railroad in 1887, was cash-strapped after the automobile age stopped its growth in its tracks.

The story goes that the mayor wanted to buy new Christmas decorations, sohesought the advice and influence of a local country music DJ, Ben Dekle. Dekle is the one who gets credit for coming up with the Chitlin Strut, according to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A thousand people ate 600 pounds of chitlins at the first event in 1966. They had new Christmas decorations liningthe streets weeks later.

These days, the Strut mostly just pays for itself, said Paul Salley, a longtime city council member who can trace a branch of hisfamily tree back to the town's founder. The town did buy something recently, though. They got some more Christmas decorations.

The future ofthe Chitlin Strut

That's not to say the Chitlin Strut is frozen in time.

They used toclean each three-yard-longchitlin on site,"twice slung and pulled through a forked limb," event programs described.

Before being cleaned, chitlins are loaded with the dangerous and the disgusting – harmful bacteria, feces, undigested food, hair and so on.

And the people of Salley volunteerto handle thousands of pounds of chitlins every November.

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The Chitlin Strut isa lot easier now, Hartley said. The chitlins they buy from North Carolina are already cleaned, boiled and pretty much frozen.

All theyhave to do to prepare them is to bring a big potto a simmer.

But the Strut has gotten harder in one way: The event date now overlaps with the annualfootball game between Clemson University and the University of South Carolina. Hartley, a die-hard Clemson fan, hopes for not just the win every yearbut that the matchup is scheduled for the evening. Alas, this year kickoff is at noon.

Organizers have also struggledto get more volunteers in recent years.Mayor Hall has been on the job just a couple weeks, but she's already working to change that. She aims tobringin new vendors, volunteers and sponsorships.

The folks who have been running the Strut are reaching the age when they can't help the way they once could, Paul Salley said. They are dying.

They are members of the generation that raised hogs in these parts, he said.They lived by thatprinciple of waste not, want not:If it could be eaten, it should.

That was Hall's childhood, too.

"We ate a little of everything," she said. "My parents didn't have much, so we ate what we could afford. A lot of the times, chitlins was that thing."

The complex history of chitlins

Michael Twitty has never eatenchitlinsand says he never will.

And he's a celebrated culinary historian, writer and educator. Still, he addresses chitlins in his award-winning book, "The Cooking Gene."He describes how his grandmother would make chitlins for his father for the holidays.

As a child, he wouldn't even stay in the house while she made them. They made such a show of it, Twitty said. Chitlins are one of those foods, he said, that's a challenge. Eating them is a way to show off, he said, and that's one of the reasons that the food endures.

"It's really what it comes down to," he said. "That bravado is there."

Historically, chitlins are not everyday eats. They were always seasonal and continue to have a holiday association. The end of the yearcoincides with traditional hog-killing time.

Before refrigeration forever changed safe food storage, most Southerners slaughtered pigs in the winter, before the first snow, Twitty said.And intestines have to be harvested as soon as the animal is killed.

The American South certainly didn't invent eating entrails. The Scottish have haggis, made of sheep or cow offal. The French have andouille, a sausage consisting of pig intestines.

In West Africa, eating every part of an animal is common, Twitty noted.

Chitlins are deeply entangled with the history of slavery in the South, and some will not eat the food in protest, citing thatin order to survive, slaves were forced to eatthe parts of the pig, including the intestines,that slave ownersdid not want.

Yet historians are now exploring how the story of chitlins is not that simple. There is evidence that slave owners did eat chitlins.It is also a food traditionally eaten in poor white communities.

Ultimately, chitlins come "in and out" of class, race, assimilation and fashion, Twitty said. The most favored part of the pig, the onereserved for the elite,has also changed through the years, too.

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There's another important part of the historical narrative that's often lost in contemporary conversations.An individual's personal preferences and tastes have always mattered, Twitty said.

Through all the changes, through thecenturies, chitlins have emerged as a signature Southern food.

"These are the building blocks, the secret pieces of what makes our food and our home cooking so good," Twitty said, "and I dare say, better than anybody else in the United States."

Chitlins belongs on the same shelves of prominence with delicacies like okra, hog maw, mutton. These are the ingredients that Twitty said just give him a "certain feeling."

He can't really explain it, he said.

What are chitlins? This may be the most polarizing holiday tradition in the South (2024)

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