Friday, October 23, 2015

Good If You Like 'Em (or, Chitlins & Church)

I will attend my first Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on October 31. So don’t bring your kids to my house later that day for trick-or-treat. If you do, they’ll get little pieces of leftover chitlins. Boo!

I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve not attended the Hoedown in previous years. After all, Yatesville is my late father’s hometown and I’ve always had family there. I’m not sure why I’ve never gone before. Until recently, I’ve lived anywhere from two to ten hours away, and I guess I just didn’t deem chitlins worth the drive.

Now that I live less than a mile from downtown Yatesville, I reckon I’ve lost that excuse. Our proximity to the happening has created some concern around my house, though. My Good Wife has a very clear childhood memory of that one time when her mother cooked chitlins. She had to leave the house because of the smell, which she describes as being somewhat unpleasant. “Stinky” is the word I think she used. My Good Wife seldom resorts to such language, so it must have been bad. Anyway, we’re concerned that the chitlin’s aroma may come wafting down the hill to our house and to our nostrils. It may set our dogs to barking.

I don’t know when I first heard the word “chitlins.” I was a child, though, and since Google wasn’t available back in the Dark Ages, I used my next best research tool: I asked my father what they were. “Pig intestines,” he answered. “And people eat them?” I inquired, my voice quavering with shock and awe. “Yes,” he said, “but they do a really good job of cleaning them first.” That struck me as a good thing.

I thought the word was spelled “chitlins,” since that’s the way we pronounced it when we used it in very clever ways, such as when we didn’t recognize the mystery meat in the school cafeteria and said, “It must be chitlins,” or when we hadn’t studied and said, “I’d rather eat chitlins than take this test,” or when we needed to return an insult with an insult and said, “Is that your face or did you just eat some chitlins and forget to wipe your mouth?”

Then, one day at about this time of year in 1972, I was sacking groceries at my new after-school job when down the conveyer belt came a frozen pail with “Chitterlings” printed on the lid. “What’s this?” I inquired of one of my more experienced colleagues. “Chitlins!” he replied. It made sense, given the way we Southerners deal with words. I mean, how do you pronounce “scuppernongs”?

The burning question for me is this: will I try the chitlins? I don’t have to; they also serve chicken at the Chitlin’ Hoedown. I like chicken. But if I do try the chitlins, will I like them? And if I like them, what then? After all, my Good Wife isn’t going to cook any for me. Not ever. They’re stinky.

If my late mother-in-law were still with us, and if I asked her if chitlins are good, I know exactly what she’d say. She’d say, “They’re good if you like ‘em!”

Now, some of you are thinking, “How could anybody not like chitlins?” And some of you are thinking, “How could anybody even think about eating chitlins?” I admit that they sound gross to me. But hey, oysters are gross, and the only problem I have with eating a dozen oysters on the half shell is that I’d rather eat three dozen, preferably with hot sauce and horseradish. I wonder if that’s a good way to eat chitlins.

“They’re good if you like ‘em.” And there’s no accounting for taste.

That’s why chitlins remind me of church.

So much of how we think about church these days comes down to matters of taste. What do we like? What don’t we like? Some of us like contemporary worship; some of us favor traditional worship. This one prefers a choir and pipe organ; that one is much more drawn to a praise band. She likes preachers who deliver their message in a conversational style; he gets more out of an animated approach. Somebody values silence and contemplation; somebody else wants to have something going on all the time.

Such things are largely a matter of taste. It’s good if you like it.

But some things about being the church and about being Christian are not a matter of taste or a matter of choice. For all of us, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, whether we are formal or informal, whether we are rural or urban, and whether we are conservative or progressive, being the church and being Christian comes down to two non-negotiable essentials: (1) we are to love the Lord our God with everything we are and (2) we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We can’t be who we are without love.

So when you join me at the Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on Saturday, October 31, eat ‘em or don’t eat ‘em and like ‘em or don’t like ‘em. But remember: even as we are divided by our stance toward chitlins, we are bound by our need to eat. We don’t have to eat chitlins, but we do have to eat food.

And ponder the truth that, even as we Christians are divided by our stance toward various practices and doctrines, we are united by the necessity to love God and to love people …

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on Friday, October 23, 2015)

No comments: