Enslaved people had to sustain themselves using meat scraps—which they transformed into savory, satisfying dishes—from their enslavers’ 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. Black 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, enslaved people 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 necessity that led Black Americans to identify with eating chitlins. Western Africans cooked and ate every edible part of animals, so they viewed entrails as more than 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 well into the Jim Crow era, when Black eateries served it with other dishes of kindred origin, now known as “soul food.” In addition to indicating where Black 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.