History will tell you that The Great Depression, or at least the first one I ever heard of, began around 1929 and ended, depending on which part of the U.S. you lived, by the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. I was born in 1942, and I’m here to tell you the depression in our neck of the woods, or in our household, went at least until the end of the 40’s. Part of the reason I suppose is that my father talked my mother into getting married, or vice versa, when he was 17 and she–at 18–just ten months older. Less then 10 months later my eldest brother was born; another followed 18 months later. My sister joined the two of them after a couple of years, and I came along as a big surprise for everybody six years later, but we never went hungry as far as I know. One o’the nine tells you, in his Looking Back story first published in a Florida free press August 27, 1987, we learned to eat (almost) anything. By the way, when my brothers (his nephews) were born, my uncle was three years old. Three more would follow him in as many years to join the other five, which should tell you how long Grandma’s depression lasted.
When I was a boy growing up on the farm in the great depression, we learned to eat almost anything that didn’t bite back. I have a friend from Texas that told me they ate jack rabbits in the depression and called them Hoover hogs. Well, we ate cotton tail rabbits and called them rabbits.
When my daddy killed hogs, my grandmother would save everything to eat except the squeal, she used that for a whistle. I so well remember Grandma cleaning the chittlens and hog maws and she ate all of this kind of food. Now I ate almost everything, but just couldn’t quite make it with those chittlens and hog maws.
When I was living in Jacksonville, I visited with a family in St. Mary’s Georgia one afternoon and when the lady of the house opened the door to let me in, thee was a strange odor. She said in a very slow Georgia drawl, “We been eating hog chittlens.” Now I didn’t want them to think I was stuck up because I lived in Jacksonville so I said, “you mean you ate all those chittlens and didn’t save me any?“‘
The next week she called me at my home in Jacksonville and asked me if my wife and me were going to St. Mary’s that Saturday. I told her that we were. She then asked us to have dinner with her and her husband. Well, when we got there we chatted for awhile, then went into their kitchen to eat.
When that woman took the pot lid off that pot of boiled chittlens, I thought the buzzardswas going to light on the window sill. They smelled just like Papa’s hog pen did after a big rain. Now we didn’t know they were going to have this for dinner and I had led them to believe that I liked them, so I decided I would eat them real fast and get it over with. I also learned if I would hold my breath they didn’t taste quite as bad, so I held my breath and ate those chittlens in two mouthfulls. The husband said, “Man, you do like those things,” and dipped me another plate full.
My wife had just gotten her hair fixed and they had teased her hair into what was called a bee hive, and all that smell got trapped in her hair. She said to me later, “you can get yourself into another spot like this if you want to, but please leave me out.”
Another thing we used to eat when we were younguns was beef tripe. I have a brother nicknamed “Goat.” He won’t eat beef tripe. He said when he was little Grandma would make him stand still and she would hang the cow tripe over his head while she cleaned it and it kind of turned him from liking it.
Mama would cook the Irish potatoes until they were getting kind of scarce, then she would put dumplings in them to make them go farther. We would clean a catfish all over and fry his body and make dumpling stew out of the head. I haven’t eaten any of these things in quite awhile, but if I could enjoy them like I did as a boy I would like to try it again.
Meanwhile, please, don’t anyone ask me to come eat chittlens wih you. Especially if my wife has just had her hair fixed.
Postscript: While Mama didn’t drape beef tripe over my head in order to clean it, she did sling it over the clothesline and made me rinse it with a garden hose all the while she she scraped the honeycomb like stomach’s lining with a kitchen case knife, perhaps better known as a butter knife. As for chittlens (as Uncle spelled it) I think most people past 30 or 40 know that chittlens, or chitterlings, or if you prefer–chitlins–are pig intestines, but if you’ve never been around a kitchen while they were being prepared . . . ! Three words of advice: DO NOT BREATHE. Because of the odor, I never tasted chitterlings–boiled or fried or cooked in any manner–ever, ever, ever! Unless you count absorption through the pores of my skin.
No matter how far from the house I was whenever I got a whiff of chitlins boiling in Mama’s kitchen, I would rather have risked starving to death than go near that place for two days, or for however long it took for the odor to clear. Or, only by holding my nose. Believe me, it permeates not just your nostrils, but everything else around, including your clothes and hair as happened to Aunt Lydia in Uncle’s story. I think you have to be born with a certain gene in order to really enjoy it, or else be a good liar. Just in case this story has set you to hankerin’ for a good mess of them, here’s a history and a recipe and interesting photographs to boot. Please feel free to share your own weird food trials and tribulations in the comments.