Chitlins or chitterlings are a tasty soul food dish made from pig intestines. The dish, which goes with vinegar and hot sauce, dates back to American slavery when the slaveowner would eat “high on the hog”, that is, getting the upper portions of leg and back while his slaves dined on the less desirable parts of the animal including the chitlins.
Chitlins “became a traditional winter food of the American Deep South during Colonial times when, before refrigeration, hogs were slaughtered in December,” as stated by the U.S. Agriculture Department. It adds that “Those not living ‘high on the hog’ were given the less desirable parts of the animal.”
Enslaved people did sustain themselves using chitlins or other less desirable parts of their enslaver’s livestock to prepare tasty meals. But along the way, chitlins became more than one’s daily bread. The dish became a code during the era of Jim Crow laws. Black entertainers or performers were aware that venues serving chitlins were safe. This collection of performance venues became known as the “Chitlin Circuit.”
In other words, the “Chitlin’ Circuit” was a group of performance venues located mostly in the South. Those performance venues were safe places for African-American entertainers to perform during the era of racial segregation.
The Chitlin’ Circuit grew between the 1930s and the 1960s when Black people were barred from performing at white establishments. The circuit was made up of Black-owned nightclubs, juke joints, dance halls and theaters in the South, on the East Coast and parts of the Midwest, according to a report by AJC.
Black musicians and other entertainers were welcomed at these venues. In fact, many of the iconic Black performers either doing gospel songs, blues or R&B got their start from these venues. Black music greats like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland helped give birth to modern-day Black music on the Chitlin’ Circuit, as stated by AJC.
Others like James Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Little Richard gained more music experience on the circuit. And in the venues that made the circuit were soul food including chitlins for patrons.
“The Chitlin’ Circuit was African-Americans making something beautiful out of something ugly, whether it’s making cuisine out of hog intestines or making world-class entertainment despite being excluded from all of the world-class venues, all of the fancy white clubs and all the first-rate white theaters,” said music historian Preston Lauterbach, author of “The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll”.
“It was one of the few places that black culture could be celebrated” during racial segregation, Lauterbach added.
The Royal Peacock in Atlanta was one of the more famous venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Others were the Liberty Theater in Columbus, the Douglass Theatre in Macon and the Morton Building in Athens.
“Most performers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had some connection to the Chitlin’ Circuit,” said Lauterbach, adding that even the Jackson Five got one of their first chances to begin a career on the circuit.
But since the term Chitlin’ Circuit denoted a certain ‘second-classness’ because of the food that it was associated with, artistes such as Little Richard and James Brown did not want to be lumped in with the term, said Lauterbach. However, others such as Blues legend Bobby Rush embraced the term, even calling himself the “king of the Chitlin’ Circuit”, Lauterbach added.
As artistes such as Little Richard gained mainstream success amid integration, the Chitlin’ Circuit saw a decline though it still exists in various forms. And as Black people continue to eat or enjoy every edible part of animals, chitlins are still popular, especially during holidays and celebrations.
In Salley, South Carolina, there is a festival known as the Chitlin’ Strut held every year. The festival began in 1966 as the mayor sought to raise money for new Christmas decorations for the town of Salley. The main focus of the festival is the preparation and consumption of large amounts of chitlins.
It is documented that the festival’s popularity has grown steadily from 1,000 people when it began to an average crowd of 40,000 to 60,000 people today, who eat more than 10,000 pounds of chitlins.