The Fellowship of the Chitterling – A Quest to Find Pig Intestines in Leicester
Last week I had dinner with my Taiwanese friend, S, who is part of my social bubble here in Leicester. We’re still experiencing lockdown, and her family are understandably very concerned for her health. Taiwan is currently functioning almost as normal, with workplaces, restaurants and places of leisure open and gatherings accepted.
To assuage some of the family’s worry, S’s brother had sent some traditional Chinese medicinal herbs in the mail, which are supposed to be used as a base for an immune-boosting broth. The broth also contains various elements of pig offal, which obviously did not arrive in the post.
S called into the local butcher to source ingredients. The butcher has been a topic of conversation between us before: the meat he sells is locally sourced, high welfare and very good quality, but he is a taciturn man with a dry sense of humour that neither of us quite “get”. He does seem to talk to his more established clientele, which prompted me to show my friend sketches from the League of Gentlemen. We now joke that the area we live in is our own little Royston Vasey in the heart of Leicester.
So my friend asked for what she thought were pig intestines, as she doesn’t know what the ingredients are called in English, but the butcher showed her sausage casings, so she went away to do some further research. She returned the next day with a picture of what she needed, and the butcher exclaimed, “OH, you want the arsehole!”. S was stunned into silence at this revelation, and mistaking her shock for a linguistic misunderstanding the butcher continued “You know, the rectum?”.
Still gobsmacked, the butcher continued, telling my friend that what she was looking for are known as “chitterlings”, telling her that usually “only very old people ask for them”, and discussing how terrible they smell. While she was telling me this S and I were screaming with laughter at the awkwardness of the exchange, but we did both acknowledge that there was an element of judgement in his reaction to her request.
When I asked about the frequency of eating offal, S expressed mild surprise that she was accustomed to eating such a visceral part of an animal. She said that in Taiwan it was common to not engage with what specific cut of meat or offal was present in your food.
The story made me think about a few things in relation to food culture and food practices, both in Leicester and more widely:
- There is a definite vogue in the restaurant trade and foodie circles for the idea of nose-to-tail eating: establishments like St John have made the idea of eating offal more acceptable to a broader British public. Such ways of eating also fit into current concerns about sustainability and food waste, making use of the entire animal after slaughter. However, it is clear that this trend does not extend to day-to-day cooking or shopping habits in the UK.
I also find this interesting in terms of how class and food practices intersect. I distinctly remember my gran regularly eating heart, liver and tongue, whereas her children and grandchildren wouldn’t even consider it, preferring more expensive cuts. It seems that whereas previously, offal was commonly eaten by working class people, it has recently become a signifier of adventurous taste, a refined palate and good food knowledge.
- Equally, I noted with interest that it is very common in China and Taiwan to eat offal without knowing which part of the animal is in question. This removed relationship to food is directly at odds with the current depictions of wet markets in China, where racist connotations of unclean and low welfare produce proliferate in the media.
Despite dietary preferences being different, the disconnect from food still similar. This commonality is mostly ignored by the press, especially where inflammatory rhetoric around the spread of COVID-19.
- Finally, I thought about Leicester’s reputation as a multicultural city. We live in an area with lots of Chinese students. It was surprising to me that the butcher had never been asked for anything similar before: perhaps Chinese students would rather travel to specific oriental supermarkets than risk encountering language barriers or being shamed for what they were asking for (I do think people younger or less confident than my friend would feel embarrassed by the butcher’s reaction).
When I first moved to Leicester, I heard anecdotally from a number of people from various circles that different communities often largely gathered in the same areas of the city to live and socialise. Without further research, it strikes me that this may be true on a number of levels, and by necessity various groups shop within their own “niche”.
Further, I thought about my own experience of moving to Leicester and visiting every kind of shop possible: Chinese and Korean supermarkets, Eastern European stores, Turkish bakeries, Halal butchers and international grocers. It occurs to me that I have been really privileged to be able to walk into whatever shop I like with impunity, project my ideas of what is exotic and exciting onto my shopping experience, and broaden my culinary horizons without experiencing overt judgement. Thinking in the context of multiculturalism: can cities really make this claim when access to the riches of all of their communities is only accessible to some? I think that this will be something for me to consider in my research, and also for policy-makers in cities to consider in their affairs.