African-American slaves prepared food from the meat scraps of their owner’s butchered livestock. One such piece of offal was chitlins, or pig intestines. But chitlins came to represent more than sustenance. During the era of Jim Crow laws, they were a code. African-American performers knew that venues serving hog intestines were safe. This collection of restaurants and music venues became known as the “Chitlin Circuit.”
Why were chitlins designated “slave food”? Since one’s social status dictated which part of the animal they ate, slaves mostly dined on the trotters (feet), maw (stomach), and chitlins, all of which required intense cleaning. Wealthy people tended to eat the upper portions of leg and back, hence the affluence-denoting phrase “high on the hog.”
But it wasn’t just just necessity that led African-Americans to identify with eating chitlins. Western Africans cooked and ate every edible part of animals, so slaves viewed entrails as more than just scraps. These resourceful cooking techniques linger today, as Southerners continue to slow-cook or deep-fry chitlins with vinegar and hot sauce, serving it alongside collard greens and cornbread.
Chitlins remained popular after emancipation and well into the Jim Crow era, when African-American eateries served it with other dishes created by ex-slaves, now called “soul food.” In addition to indicating where African-American artists could perform during this period, the Chitlin Circuit established a touring route that fans could follow.
Today, chitlins are reserved for holiday meals and celebrations, largely because they require so much preparation. In Salley, South Carolina, about 50,000 people attend an annual event called the Chitlin’ Strut. Since the honorary festival began in 1966, it’s produced almost half a million pounds’ worth of chitlin.
Need to Know
Chitlins are less readily available today than in past decades, but you can still find pig intestines for sale at some butcher shops and in the occasional Southern restaurant. People in parts of Europe make pig intestine dishes, as well.