Intestines, it’s safe to say, certainly fit the bill of being considered “disgusting” to eat by many people. Not unreasonably, either—they are organs, first off, and to make matters worse they contain nasty substances. Partially digested food. Kind of post-vomit, pre-feces. Who’s hungry?
But despite these drawbacks, intestines are actually a fairly common food. Most European nations have a history of consuming them, as do several East Asian countries, like the
Philippines and Korea. Here in the U.S. they’re most associated with
the Southern, “soul food” tradition.
There are, obviously, two types of intestines—large and small. Food-wise, though, we’re basically only dealing with the small—I couldn’t find any references to people eating the larger kind (at least not happily, or commonly). Pig is the most common source, but sheep (especially in
Greece, Turkey, and the
Balkans) and cow are sometimes utilized as well.
About a year ago, I visited a huge, kind of sketchy, flea market in
Delaware (see January 20th, 2013 post about pig’s ears
for more information). At the same
butcher shop that sold the ears I also saw chitlins for sale (“chitlins” and
“chitterlings” are the names for pig small intestines, especially in the soul
food tradition). Alas, the smallest
portion sold was a five pound mass. I
wasn’t quite willing to make such a relatively large monetary, freezer space,
and preparation time investment, so I reluctantly abstained.
However, I then learned that I’d already had intestines years before. At a Mexican restaurant in
Iowa, I had “tacos de tripa,” which I
thought meant tripe, or stomach lining.
I’ve had tripe many times since (see July 3rd, 2012 post about tripe), and
usually liked it, as the Mexican style stew with hominy (“Menudo”), or in a
tomato-based sauce in an Italian restaurant.
But it turns out that despite the closeness of the name, “tripa” is not
tripe, but small intestine. And I can
tell you it was terrible. It was like
eating rubber—unpleasantly chewy, and what little taste it had was nasty. Definitely a one time only, failed
Furthermore, I’ve almost certainly had intestines as casing for some hot dogs and sausages. Modern hot dogs, especially, usually use another casing source, like cellulose, collagen, or even a type of plastic (yum!), but traditional, (and usually pricier) butchers and stores still use the real intestines. I like hot dogs, and really like sausage, so in that sense I could say I’ve enjoyed intestines. But, let’s face it, I think the charm of hot dogs and sausage comes more from the spiced meat inside, and not the outer casing. If I removed the inner stuffing from the natural casing, I doubt I’d be that impressed.
Like some other digestive-associated organs, intestines are notorious for having a strong, foul odor when they’re cooking. Traditional chitlin recipes advise tossing in an onion while they boil or stew, to cut the stench a bit. (This seems like a weird strategy to me—like covering over a terrible song by playing another bad song, but, in the chef’s defense, it apparently works.) Also, there are health concerns. Intestines that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned, or cooked adequately can spread e. coli, salmonella, and other potent pathogens.
So, to sum up, I’m willing to give certain forms of intestines another fair shake. I’ll give chitlins a try if I see them on a menu, or more reluctantly, I’ll cook them if the portion circumstances are more reasonable. But I have to say that I’m not optimistic that I’ll like them.
Finally, author/historian/restaurateur Shauna Anderson is known as “The Queen of Chitlins,” but as far as I can tell other ranks are still up for grabs. So enthusiasts can maybe reach that dream goal. “Count of Chitlins” or “Duchess of Chitlins” would certainly jazz up a business card, or an epitaph.