Why Chitlins Are An Iconic Soul Food Dish

From collard greens to red beans and rice, the soul food repertoire is filled with flavor and variety, but chitlins are arguably one of the most unique dishes on soul food menus (via African American Registry). Made from pig innards, chitterlings, commonly referred to by the name chitlins, can be prepared with red pepper, onions, salt, and minced garlic (per AllRecipes). While boiling them is an option, they are also often fried. According to the Los Angeles Times, chitlins are typically prepared as a holiday dish.

But how did this hearty porcine treat come to be such an important part of soul food culture? It's possible that the dish became popular much in the same way that red beans and rice allegedly developed from the diets of 18th-century Haitian emigrants who "brought spicy Caribbean recipes for beans and rice," according to New Orleans' Camellia Brand, which similarly notes that "enslaved African plantation workers along the Mississippi River also ate meals of spicy red beans and rice."

Chitlins were what enslaved people were allowed to have

Soul food and Southern cooking are different. While they have similar food preparation methods and recipe ingredients, soul food is distinctive in that it is, as chef Millie Peartree writes for Delish, "an ethnic cuisine traditionally prepared and eaten by African-Americans in the Southern United States."

Chitlins are an example of the organ meats, sometimes referred to as offal, or "meat scraps" that enslaved people were given to cook with (per Gastro Obscura). While they were seen as undesirable, Gastro Obscura notes that because West Africans were familiar with using as much of the animal as possible, they recognized the value of these discarded parts. In this way, chitlins became more than a meal of survival.

Even after slavery, chitlins continued to be a historically important food for Black Americans. When Jim Crow laws were still in effect, African-American entertainment professionals and musicians sought out the "Chitlin' Circuit," which NPR describes as, "a group of performance venues located mostly in the South" that were deemed safe havens and, according to Gastro Obscura, also featured the fabled pig intestines on their menus. Still a popular offering on soul food menus to this day, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes, "chitterlings have become as much a delicacy as escargots or foie gras."