Advertisement

A place of honor for slaves’ survival food

Share
Washington Post

Some considered swine innards trash. Others took the intestines of the pig and boiled them into a staple and, eventually, into a notorious delicacy.

And this week chitlins, a dish given to African American slaves, and over time perfected into a holiday tradition, were authenticated as a treasure by the Smithsonian Institution. The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture accepted the papers of the Chitlin Market, a local business, as part of its emerging collection of materials about African American celebrations and foods.

The donation, said Steven Cameron Newsome, the museum’s director, gives momentum to the effort to “document African American life, particularly African American celebratory traditions. Foodways are a way of celebrating.”

Advertisement

The museum is preparing two shows in which chitlins, formerly chitterlings, might be a centerpiece. One planned for February explores family and community celebrations, and the second, scheduled for February 2005, examines traditional foods and food service occupations.

Shauna Anderson, who opened her chitlin cleaning business in Hyattsville, Md., in 1995, said she couldn’t believe she was hearing the word “museum” used in the same sentence with the name of her enterprise. Surrounded by close friends and holding a picture of her grandmother, Virginia Battle, who taught her how to clean pig intestines, Anderson told her story and wiped away tears.

Anderson said she was representing 400 years of slavery and oppression. “I was born to parents who were musicians, who had to come in the back door and leave by the back door where they were playing. But my late grandmother, Virginia Battle, told me I could do things.”

Anderson was looking for a way to supplement her accounting firm’s income during the slow season and thought back to the special times when she and her grandmother would clean chitlins together. When she told Angela Holmes, a close friend who later became her business partner, about her dream of opening her own business, Holmes recalled saying, “Who’s going to clean chitlins?” Anderson discovered the Maryland Health Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t have regulations for the cleaning process, so she developed her own guidelines.

When Anderson advertised for chitlin cleaners in the newspaper, she got 100 responses. She had hit a chord. She has had two retail stores, she said, but now she is strictly an Internet business, with a mailing list of 4,000 customers (www.chitlinmarket.com). Her cleaned chitlins are shipped frozen; she has sold 200 tons since September 2000.

Both blacks and whites from the South acknowledge them as a tasty tradition. “It brings the elite, rich and famous together with the poor and hungry. It has one common bond. Food that was once trashed and buried was dug up, cleaned and cooked for nourishment to the African American slaves. It was survival food,” said Anderson.

Advertisement
Advertisement