by Carolyn Wysinger
When I moved back home to live with my family, I had many fears about cultural differences that would cause major static. Most all of them revolved around me and my queer little life. Why do I call my friends bois? Why am I longer willing to wear dresses to church? When did it become okay to use the word queer? And how to act around “lady friends.”
But none of these were the issues that brought things to a head, the thing that finally built the dividing wall between them and I, the thing that made me wonder if this cohabitation was actually possible. It was chitlins. Not chitterlings. Chitlins! The one tradition that I left when I moved out of my mama’s house and vowed never to return. Every year, she would promise to no longer make them, and yet, like clock-work, each New Years Eve I found myself holed up in my bedroom with a towel stuffed under the door and a clothespin on my nose to avoid the terrible aroma. My New Years hibernation became its own tradition.
For the uninitiated, chitlins are usually the small intestines of a pig, but sometimes cattle and other animals as well.Chitlins are delicacies in many parts of the world. In the United States, Chitlins are a southern delicacy primarily eaten by African-Americans. They normally don’t appear in their recognizable red buckets until just before Christmas as families stock up on their provisions for the holiday. The tradition is that every year on New Years Day, you eat chitlins accompanied by every other bit of soul food you can think of. It has always been the day you could request ALL of your favorite soul foods and your mother would make it. I’m a true southern boi so that includes fried chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, greens, okra, corn, baked corn bread, hot water corn bread, pork chops, ox tails, neck bones and the most required New Years food, black eyed peas (cause if you don’t have at least one spoonful of black eyed peas you are doomed to bad luck for the rest of the year!)
However, as much as I claim to be southern bred, there are some southern staples that I won’t touch: hog maws (pig stomach), pig feet (self explanatory), hog head cheese and the aforementioned chitlins. After I denounced chitlins to my aunt and announced that my cousins didn’t eat them either, she informed me that “I was a citified California kid who could eat weird stuff like hummus but not chitlins.” Then she “told” on me to the rest of the family. I will admit to being somewhat offended because I felt as if she was insinuating that I was not just shunning the dish itself, but also the tradition, culture, and history behind it. Though I refuse to eat them, I fully understand that chitlins carry a legacy of survival, are pleasurable to many people’s tastebuds, and are familiar like home. Oxtails and neckbones evoke the same sense of familiarity and comfort for me. However, that is a familiarity that was introduced to my ancestors through one of the most violent forms of oppressions: slavery.
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The history that has been passed on about chitlins is that during slavery, when the “Master” held celebrations, such as for New Years, he would purchase a hog for the celebration. He would cook up the best cuts of the hog and sent the remaining fattiest and least desired parts such as the fatback, snouts, ears, feet, stomach and intestines to people he held hostage as slaves. It was an easy way to feed them for cheap, regardless of if it was healthy for them or not.
As I sat and thought about the traditions that have been passed down as a result of colonization, slavery and imperialism, I realized that the culture of chitlins is just one of many dietary customs that had made the long journey from the slave plantations to our current day cultures. Even at a time where we have CEOs, educators, and politicians of color, we still can’t shake the – well, stinky – tradition. But what struck me even more is how eerily this tragedy turned custom mirrored the current state of food justice and segregation in poor and working-class communities of color. There are less sustainable food options as more and more fast food restaurants spring up on neighborhood corners. While we are seeing more fast food restaurants go up we are seeing grocery stores leaving these same neighborhoods. More of our communities are becoming classified as “food deserts” where affordable & healthy food is difficult to obtain.
In early 2013, two major grocery stores, Albertsons and Ralphs, closed at the same time in my Long Beach neighborhood and left our heavily populated, primarily low-income, African-American, Latino and Cambodian community without a central grocer. I was fortunate to have my own vehicle to get down to the nice Ralphs in the primarily white and relatively affluent area near Cal State Long Beach. But I felt so bad for the families with multiple children and no vehicle that couldn’t possibly make a complete shopping trip 5 miles out of the way on the bus. Something like this would never happen in a neighborhood with a higher income bracket and, dare I say, whiter complexion? NEVER! We were left to our own devices while the chains decided exactly what to do with these spaces.
What came next is becoming even more common in urban communities of color: the corporations switched grocery stores, with organic options, for discount versions of their brand to the area – Food 4 Less and ValuPak. They beefed up the canned and processed foods, reducing the already traumatized, modified, and drenched-in-pesticides substances they call vegetables. The message is clear: they value our money but not our health, our lives, or our families. We are expected to be complacent with paying for the slow deterioration of our bodies, to settle for the discarded pig parts, to not recognize or assert our worth. The plantation turned into a corporation called Safeway. Hey at least we are eating, right? I was able to ask one of the city councilmen if there was anything that we as a community can do to demand that these chains not bring their bottom basement stores into our communities: “Unfortunately, we there is no precedent for dictating what a company puts in their building.“
Poor and working class urban communities are left with only neighborhood markets, liquor stores and bodegas to feed their families, and many tried to do their best to keep essential foods in stock for the numerous families that shop at their stores. For years, my own family operated a neighborhood market in the food desert of North Richmond because my late uncle felt the importance of giving citizens a local place where they could go and get the essentials. Unfortunately, however, neighborhood markets also double as the local liquor store – which is not always the safest for our children, wallets, and survival. In the area of North Long Beach there was a different approach to regulating the food deserts in the community. In the North Long Beach community, their city councilman was able to create the “Healthy Neighborhood Market Initiative” which offered incentives and assistance to corner stores who wish to update their operations to limit tobacco and liquor signage while offering healthier and safer food options to the community. It became a great example of where the community was able to engage their local official in helping them change the food culture around them.
As capitalism and urban infrastructure continue to spin their classist, racist matrix in our neighborhoods and in the stress of our, often time, mere struggle for survival, there are children who may not even know what a fresh vegetable looks like. Not even from government subsidized school lunches. Communities of color are still waiting, and fighting, to be given the prime cut of meat from the table. We are still waiting for the dominant culture to deem us worthy enough to ensure that we have healthy food and not wait for the scraps that are given. We are still living with obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes because we are getting by on what is given to us in in the process of striving towards what is excluded from us. I am as much for cultural traditions as the next person, but if we are going to continue to observe them, let’s be aware of the tragedies that have been handed down with them and the chains that we are still struggling to break. For me, I will continue to educate as many as I can around me about the disparities in food justice in our low-income communities, invest in urban farming (free and organic!), and continue to stay my California-kid self away from chitlins!
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