By Lena Fields-Arnold & Penda Horton-James
I never understood why my grandmother made chitlin’s (chitterlings) every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hardly anyone ever ate them! Well, almost no one. Invariably every year, grandpa would fix a big, heaping plateful and exclaim, “Ya’ll don’t know what ya’ll missing – this is good eating right here!” (He said that, but I never saw him eat more than two bites before he snuck the napkin over his plate.)
Nevertheless, she would spend hours the night before cleaning and cooking them. Every year they sat on that stove; smelling up that big, old, brown and black stained, tin pot; that she must have owned since she was a little girl.
Chitlin’s and Christmas go together like macaroni and cheese, ribs cooked on the grill, angels in the snow, singing and poppin’ fingers.
Grandma would splash the chitlin’s in hot water with chunks of lemon and say, “This is a hard job baby.” I used to turn my nose up at the task, “I want to make sure they are clean.”
I don’t know if she ever took breaks to rest her butt cheeks. She’d stand there, varicose veins bulging, and the television or radio on to keep her company. Her hands would periodically disappear into that sink full of chitlin’s as she pulled up pieces to separate. (Ugh! I couldn’t watch her do that part.)
“Grandma cleans the hell out of them chitlin’s don’t she girl.” Grandpa would say. “Yeah, sweating and pulling, boiling and scrubbing, she takes her job seriously.”
She sure did! With every movement, of separating the good from the bad, Grandma was pouring her love into the water, “I don’t want nobody to get sick. These chitlin’s have to be squeaky clean before I put them on my table.”
I never said a word out of respect for her, but I secretly wondered how anything that smelled that bad could ever really be clean.
Every year, each of us, took our turns lifting up that lid and remarking on the stink that came out. Each year, each of us slammed that lid down just as fast as fast as we had lifted it up. Each of us, in turn would ask grandma the same question “Why do you make this every year? You know that no one is going to eat them?”
Grandma would only smile and say, “Somebody will.”
Right about the time the 10th relative came through the door, cousin Cleavon would sashay in and say, “Who it is got that slave food cookin’ in heah?” We’d all laugh. And that laughter would lead to an hour long debate on the merits and “demerits” of chitlin’s. Most seemed to agree that we’d been delivered from possum, chicken feet, and ox tails. None among our generation would eat a raccoon, and that would lead to another hour long story telling session about how Uncle MC and Uncle A.D. got chased by a momma raccoon back in 1964.
They kept us in stitches ‘bout how they had tracked that raccoon, and had finally had her cornered at the back entrance to a cave, when that momma raccoon turned on them. “Jumped the dog, who went running for his life,” 75year old uncle MC would start. “Pert near snatched the gun right outta my hand. Then she looked at me ‘n’ said, ‘Mister, I got three young ‘uns here. You gotta let me be, else ain’t gonna be no ‘coon for you to shoot at next year.”
“Grandpa, ain’t no raccoon talked to you for real did it?” Asked a wide eyed Sunnie.
“Why it sho’ did!” He exclaimed.
“Jumped right onto the tip of my gun and asked for a reprieve it did?”
“What’s a repreeeveeee?
“A reprieve is when someone asks you for a pardon?
“What’s a pardon?”
“A pardon is what we gonna have to give your uncle MC for tellin’ these big old lies.”
When everyone finished laughing, another round of tall tales session would startup about hunting trips from years past for possum, squirrels, and rabbits. The younger folks would start to moan, and by the time the talk got around to hogshead cheese, ox tail soup, chicken feet, livers, gizzards, and pigs feet and other such meat—NONE of us would dare to eat today; they would all be ready to puke! While the older folks would get to lickin’ their lips as they reminisced about fixing that meat with collard and dandelion greens, black eyed peas, red beans and rice, and polk salad. They would salivate at the thought of soppin’ up the fatback flavored, pot liquor with big hunk of cornbread.
The middle aged group (which I was now an unwilling part of) would secretly thank God for deliverance from the massa’s throw away food, while at the same time openly thanking Him for those fatback flavored greens and cornbread. Once, Aunt Cat (in her organic phase) decided to make some greens without fatback and she was almost stoned to death! She could have at least put a ham bone in there or something! I mean, we were some dumb, but not plumb dumb. A well cooked plate of greens and cornbread would never go unappreciated.
Everybody that ate Grandma’s chitlin’s got excited. Shrieks of “Ooh chitlin’s!,” was more of an exclamation than a question. The non-chitlin eaters who roll their eyes and turn their noses don’t deter the hard core eaters who respond with, “Good, more for me.”
“I remember how the chitlin’s used to tickle when they slid down my throat.” Aunt Cat said, both repulsed and happy at her memory. “My ears and my mouth seemed to come alive and sing in a symphonic praise. My taste buds stood at attention and I always had to close my eyes and pull my cheeks really taut to keep from laughing.”
“Yeeess!” Emanated from a small chorus of chitlin lovers seated around the table.
“Chewing was necessary, but not too much or I’d miss the hot sauce and lemon juice. They masked the smell, and strengthened the taste. My brother put so much on his chitlin’s that they look like French fries doused with ketchup.” We all looked at his plate, she was right. He had that hot sauce on his chitlin’s and his cole slaw.
“It will heal your high blood pressure and your baby’s asthma.” Uncle M.C. happily chimed.
Aunt Cat rolled her eyes, “Don’t start MC.” She pointed her fork of greens at him.
“You need to put them turnips down and eat some po-ke.”
“Ain’t nobody fixing to eat no po-ke.” She said while slurping up another forkful of greens.
“You was raised on po-ke, ain’t nothing wrong with it. Our grandparents ate po-ke and they lived to be almost 100 years old. Mama eats po-ke and she ain’t never been sick a day in her life.”
“That’s interesting MC, how is it that Mama never got sick a day in her life and I’m half her age with obesity and hypertension?”
“Cause you need some po-ke!” The room got silent.
As we lustily breathed in the goodness of the greens and chattered about the stench of the chitlin’s, it made us all remember. It made us remember—stolen ancestors, and triangular trade routes, sales blocks, snatchings, away, hard toil, rapes and lynching’s. Made us remember civil rights struggles, unfair prison systems, and current states of unfair treatments.
Christmas and chitlin’s go together like strength and simplicity.
We were reminded of how Grandma could not register to vote in Barnesville, Georgia because she couldn’t answer the question, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” Grandma was part of a generation who had to make the best out of what they were given.
Mostly though, the smell of chitlin’s made us remember. Made us remember the stories of courage, and love, and hope passed on through generations audacious enough to defy the odds and survive! So that when Thanksgivings and Christmas’s roll around we are really thankful for all that God has brought us through and protected us from.
“Me, a slave?” Cousin Deena insisted. “If my passion for social justice is any indication, I would have gotten myself into some serious trouble back in the day. They probably would have cut my tongue or chopped my foot off like they did Kunta Kente.”
We laughed when Uncle Oscar reminded her, “You probably would have been a house negro with that good hair and light skin, anyway.”
“Yup” she agreed, “Ya’ll woulda been eating good when I snuck food from the big house back to the cabin.”
We remember those times and we are thankful for the present. That appreciative spirit is constantly kept alive by that old, greasy pot of chitlin’s sitting untouched on that stove.
So now, here it is, a year after Grandma’s death. I am outside braving the cold with my husband’s painter’s mask on my face; a hose in my hand and a big bucket washing chitlin’s. (Sorry, grandma had her way and I have mine.)
I don’t even know if anyone ever thanked Grandma for staying up all night cooking, and sacrificing her own sleep to give us a spread you can’t get at a restaurant buffet. She would cross off each menu item with her big black marker that hung on the refrigerator. She slashed through that list like a gladiator and we feasted like we’d been the ones to slay the dragon.
Christmas and chitlin’s go together like sacrifice and selflessness.
I cook those chitlin’s with the same love and care my grandma did. I season them to taste just like grandma did. (Though between you and me, I never actually taste them.) I cook them in that same brown and black stained tin pot that grandma had from childhood.
I leave them sitting on that stove-just like my grandma did.
Then, I wait patiently for the arrival of my 11th guest. I smile when I see him sashay through the door and exclaim, “Who it is got that slave food cooking in heah?”
Lena Arnold is an award winning author endorsed by the late CBS News Correspondent Ed Bradley. She is the Publisher of Emperor Publishing and the author of several books, including “In the Absence of My Father,” “Strong Black Coffee: Poetry and Prose to Enlighten, Encourage, and Entertain Americans of African Descent,” “For This Child We Prayed: Living with the Secret Shame of Infertility,” and “For This Dream I Prayed: Companion Journal,” “Scenes from the City,” and “Jackie’s Way” a children’s book on anger management and bullying in collaboration with with Columbus based artist Michael Fields.
Penda L. James is a native of Dayton, Ohio. At Wilberforce University Penda cultivated her love for editing and coaching writers as the Editor in Chief of the Mirror Newspaper. Although writing and reading were loves for a long time, Penda did not appreciate her own gift to be a scribe until graduating from Bowling Green State University and working with “raw talent” in her community. Through her business, InSCRIBEd Inspiration, LLC, Penda seeks to coach writers and help them fulfill their dream of being published. She is the editor and publisher of “Free to Fly: Transitions for the Seasons in a Woman’s Life,” “Girl Pray for Me,” and “Girl Walk with Me.”