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Photo by Anne McQuary/SCPRT
Down the hatch
For true Chitlin Eaters, it’s hard to work in the cooking room of the annual Chitlin Strut and not sample the product.
Photo by: Anne McQuary/SCPRT
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Plain old-fashioned fun
Chitlin Eaters and Chitlin Haters can both enjoy the festival’s rides, music and dance competitions.
Photo by: Anne McQuary/SCPRT
When the parade ended with Santa Claus waving to the crowd from his perch atop a Town of Salley fire truck, the crowd moved as one down Pine Street to the Chitlin Strut festival grounds, where the carnival rides twirled and the vendor booths stood poised against a flawless November sky.
It would have been a perfect day if you didn’t have a nose.
Because you could not, even if you wanted to, avoid the smell of chitlins. Here’s the polite way to describe it: A smoky barnyard odor—something subtle yet pervasive in the air, but impossible to get out of your clothes with just one wash, like wood smoke or pluff mud.
There is no other smell like it, for chitlins are the boiled intestines of a pig. They fall into the same category as fatback, pork rinds, pickled pig feet, pig snouts, pig ears—the scraps of the swine, all the parts you’re hard-pressed to find on any restaurant menu or traditional Thanksgiving table.
And the world, I’ve found, is easily divided into two groups: Chitlin Eaters and Chitlin Haters. The taste of chitlins is like abstract art or the color hot pink or Star Wars—you either love it or you hate it, and there’s not much room for anything like a middle ground.
This is not to say that Chitlin Haters avoid the annual Chitlin Strut. They turn out by the thousands to eat their turkey legs or their corn dogs. They smile and dance and ride the rides like everyone else, but they refuse to have anything to do with the actual chitlins.
Inspired by shows like Man vs. Food and No Reservations, I went to Salley, wanting to be a Chitlin Eater.
First Timers and Life Timers
Chitlin Eaters, I soon realized, fall into two categories themselves: the First Timers and the Life Timers.
The Life Timers are easy enough to spot. They’re the first in line at the old Salley schoolhouse, where they pay $10 for a Styrofoam box of two dozen chitlins (boiled or fried), two plastic packets of Texas Pete hot sauce (a necessity), two slices of white bread (in case you want to make a chitlin sandwich) and a sweet tea (an even greater necessity).
The Life Timers don’t have that nervous look as they wait in line, sometimes for up to a half-hour, and they don’t take small bites or chew their chitlins slowly with scrunched faces. They are people like Allen Fulmer, of Cleveland, Tenn., who grew up in the Salley area and who had returned to the festival to visit his family and to eat some chitlins.
“If you think ham is the best part of the hog, then you never ate chitlins before,” he said holding out his box for his niece, Tempest Melvin, a college student at Lee University and a skeptical First Timer.
“Should I dip it?” she asked, eyeing the hot sauce. “Or just eat it like it is?”
“Do whatever you want,” Fulmer instructed. “I’ve forgotten how good they are.”
Melvin thought about it for a minute, then dipped her chitlin in hot sauce and took a bite.
Her face flushed red, she gagged a bit, but she got it down.
“Do I need to be honest about this right now?”
Yes, we agreed, she did.
“It tastes like a pig smells.”
Everyone erupted in laughter, the Chitlin Strut’s predominant sound.
Plain, old-fashioned fun
On a stage to our right, The Root Doctors were tuning up as the set music blared “It’s Chitlin Time” by The Kentucky Headhunters (“Looking good! Feeling fine! It’s chitlin time!”).
“Get this man some chitlins!” the lead singer yelled into the microphone at the bass guitarist. “He needs a chitlin injection!”
I watched as the Chitlin Strut Beauty Pageant winner—wearing hot pink pants, a tiara and a pig-decorated sash—daintily bit into her first chitlin.
“Not bad,” she said. “But it still smells bad.”
If you’re wondering what kind of mad genius cooked up the idea of a festival dedicated to hog guts, that would be one Ben Dekle, aka The Palmetto Philosopher, a country-and-western disc jockey working at WCAY radio station back in the 1960s. When the Salley Town Council needed new Christmas decorations and a new fire truck but didn’t want to raise taxes to buy them, they sought Dekle’s advice. He recommended a festival dedicated to chitlins, and the rest, as they say, was history.
“He told me he started this thing to humiliate the politicians,” said Life Timer Jerry Campbell of Belton.
If that was Dekle’s aim, then what to make of the fact that, just six years after the inaugural strut, the White House sent an official representative to ride in the parade?
Only one answer: the Chitlin Strut was plain, old-fashioned fun. Attendance soared each year, and today the festival routinely prepares nearly five tons of chitlins for tens of thousands of visitors.
Confessions of a Chitlin Hater
At the 2012 Chitlin Strut, I ducked into the cooking room to meet Life Timers Mark Hartley and Marion Milhouse. Both men wore hats, aprons and boots as they paced across the sawdust-covered floor, boiling chitlins—with onions and a special seasoning—in large syrup kettles. At a nearby table, other volunteers rolled batches of chitlins in flour before frying them up in six vats of peanut oil.
Hartley, who works for Aiken Electric Cooperative, picked out a 4-inch dangler from the table of ready-to-serve fried chitlins and handed it to me. It looked and felt like an oversized fried calamari strip. Won’t kill me, I figured. So I took a bite.
With their rubbery texture, chitlins take a long time to chew. You can’t scarf down a chitlin. You really taste it—bite after bite after chewy bite. And when you don’t like it, but you have two new friends gauging your reaction, you smile and say, as I did, “Pretty good. Not bad.”
And then you walk away and throw the rest in a trash can, struck by the realization that the first rule of Southern cooking—that you can deep-fry anything and make it taste good—is not always true.
So there I was, against my will, a Chitlin Hater.
After a moment of despair, I accepted my fate, found myself a corn dog and drenched it in yellow mustard. I smiled and danced and rode the rides like everyone else, but I haven’t bitten into a chitlin ever since.
Get There: The Chitlin Strut is held every year in the town of Salley on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The parade starts at 10 a.m., and chitlins are served all day. For more information, visit chitlinstrut.com.