Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chitterlings are Health Food - Joann's

I was driving through Frayser on Friday when I noticed Joann's Family Affair Soul Food on Watkins just north of Overton Crossing. Up until then I still hadn't tried chitterlings on my quest, so when I saw a sign on the front window assuring me that they were available I decided it was time.

The restaurant serves chitterlings on Fridays and Saturdays and apparently the big orange sign goes up on those days to let customers know they are available. It's safe to say that the restaurant doesn't see many white customers given the surprised looks I received when I walked in the door. Everyone was friendly, even as the lady behind the counter laughingly freaked out when she asked what I wanted to order and I said chitterlings.

"YOU want chitterlings?! Don't be fooling with me. What do you know about chitterlings?! Have you ever had them before?"

I told her I hadn't. I'm not sure what sort of bizarre whiteboy voyeurism she thought had led me to stop in and try them. I explained that I was working my way through as many Memphis area barbecue and soul food places as possible. Is it a real barbecue and soul food quest if I never bother trying chitterlings? Besides I love pork, I love traditional foods and I don't share the U.S. general publics' disregard for organ meats, which are a treasured, nutrient-rich part of nearly every traditional culinary culture in human history.
In case there are any non-Southerners reading this blog who aren't familiar with the term, chitterlings, pronounced chitlins, are pig intestines.

The lady, who said she is the owner and cooks everything in the kitchen by herself from scratch, tried to point me towards the baked chicken but I went ahead and ordered chitterlings with turnip greens and yams. Everything ended up being great. The curious owner came over to the section of the restaurant where the tables were and seemed pleasantly surprised when she saw me steadily hitting my chitterlings with hot sauce and eating them. I've heard about some chitterlings having an off-putting odor and/or texture but these didn't. They were tender and tasty. The portions were huge but I still ate almost everything. The owner told me that chitterlings all come down to knowing how to properly prepare them.

Joann's shares a shopping center with a liquor store and a smut shop. The shopping center sits across the street from the cool-looking art deco building for the WREC broadcast towers. Ironically, WREC is the local affiliate for talk radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. 

Since I largely work outside and the temperature was well into the 90s on Friday I was a little worried about eating a big pile of new-to-me offal and then heading back out into the heat, but it ended up being a non-issue. This is food that people have traditionally eaten around the world while doing outdoor manual labor. Since I've been completely avoiding sodas and cutting way back on wheat products over the past year I pretty much never have problems like heartburn and other stomach issues no matter what I eat.

And speaking of eating chitterlings and avoiding sodas, there has been a lot of fuss in the news lately about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of sodas bigger than 16 ounces from restaurants, movie theaters and food carts. There is no question that sugary drinks have been a huge contributor in the United State's current epidemic of high blood sugar that has been driving dramatic increases in obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, etc. But does that mean it is a good idea to get the government involved in what people eat and drink?

When I got home from work on Friday I looked up the nutrient information for chitterlings. One listing I found was for a three ounce serving while another was for a full pound. I'm not sure how big the serving I had was, but it was definitely a lot more than three ounces. If you follow the USDA's nutritional recommendations then the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in chitterlings will seem shocking. But dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with your actual blood cholesterol levels. And by ignoring the USDA and eating a diet full of saturated fat with limited carbs and moderate protein I've dramatically improved my cholesterol numbers while maintaining a healthy weight.

So chitterlings actually have a great nutritional profile as long as you don't eat a lot of processed junk with them that will cause you to store the fat in them. And they are loaded with vitamins and minerals like zinc, iron and vitamin B-12. Watch a nature documentary. When a meat-eating animal kills something it doesn't look around for lean cuts of muscle on its prey. It goes straight for the fatty organ meats. Also, I was eating my chitterlings with turnip greens and yams; two plants that are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins. So pairing them with plenty of natural fat helps your body to absorb all the nutrients in them. There is a myth that soul food is unhealthy because even the greens are cooked with pork fat. Cooking them with the healthy fats from pork actually makes them better for you. the real secret to making soul food healthy is avoiding the sugars and starches.

So ironically, while chitterlings are often thought of as an unhealthy and undesirable food associated with poverty, they are a great way to feed a working body. Meanwhile, it hasn't been until relatively recently that poverty has become so closely associated with obesity. And most obese poor people are also malnourished, because they are getting so many empty calories from the nutritionally deficient processed foods that are ultra cheap because they are manufactured from federally subsidized crops like soy, wheat and corn.

Type 2 diabetes didn't become an epidemic in the south while people were living off of meat and vegetables cooked in pork fat. It became an epidemic when people started living off of flour, refined vegetable oils, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Yet today people with type 2 diabetes, a disease caused by chronically elevated blood sugar, are routinely told that they can control their blood sugar levels by cutting animal fats out of their diets and eating a lot of whole grains. That advice is absurd. Besides fat people are also told to limit salt intake, despite a total lack of evidence that eating less salt is actually healthy. So there is no way I can support any further government involvement in peoples' diets when government involvement in peoples' diets is already making our country increasingly overweight and unhealthy. 

Here is Sean Croxton, the man behind the excellent Underground Wellness podcast and blog, explaining the science behind what sugar does to the body. It's bad stuff, and most people in the U.S. are addicted to it. But making people drink sodas out of smaller containers isn't going to curb that addiction.

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  1. That just MAY, just MAY be why radio talk show hosts such as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh are truly needed to be listened to. WAKE UP

  2. Great post! There is only a few folks I'd trust to cook and serve me chitterlings, so it's nice to learn of a restaurant that has decent looking (i.e. clean) ones :).