When I was just a cub reporter on the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss., I was assigned the police and courts beat. My favorite stop on my way to work every morning was the county jail, a popular place for legal hangers-on like me. Lawyers, probation officers, bail bondsmen, deputies and reporters would all stop off at the jail and say their howdy-dos to Sheriff Harvey Tackett.
Now, the sheriff, Harvey Tackett, was a fine man and all and we were always happy to see him, but if the truth be told, he wasn’t the main attraction. It was the kitchen, which was run by prisoners that had become trusties and happened to be great cooks.
Every morning, we’d stop in and pull a hot biscuit off the stove, stuff it full of ham or bacon or sausage, grab a hot cup of coffee and wander back to the sheriff’s office for a little talk. When the talk went a little dry, we’d wander back down the hall to the kitchen and grab some grits or maybe some cornbread. Sometimes, when the talk went on for a couple of hours, we’d check on how lunch was proceeding.
After a few months, everyone started talking about the sheriff’s Annual Chitlin Dinner, comparable in importance in Greenville to a state dinner at the White House.
“You coming to the Big Dinner?” a county commissioner asked me over biscuits one day.
“Sure, wouldn’t miss it,” I said.
“Ever eat a chitlin’, son?” he asked, looking at me skeptically.
“Why sure,” I said. “I am from the South, you know.”
“Georgia,” I say proudly.
“Georgia? Where in Georgia?”
The commissioner put his coffee down and looked me in the eye. “Son, I thought you said you were from the South.”
Actually, I wasn’t quite positive I had ever eaten a chitlin. In fact, I was a little afraid to admit I didn’t even know what one was.
One day, I walked in the jail and things were all askew. First of all, it stunk to hog heaven. Secondly, there was a lot of noise coming from the second floor, where the inmates were kept in cells. I walked in the kitchen to get my biscuit and I saw Sheriff Tackett standing over several big pots boiling on the stove. He was stirring one pot and he didn’t look happy. Upstairs, I could hear cups being rattled against the prison bars. The prisoners were yelling. The cook, a trusty – or a prisoner who had earned the sheriff’s trust – was standing by the door behind the sheriff. Behind him was a woman who served as the sheriff’s records manager. She had red hair, was young and sassy.
“It’s bad,” Sheriff said. “It’s a bad batch of chitlins.”
“How do you know a bad batch from a good batch?” the woman kidded the sheriff. “All chitlins smell bad to me!”
“It’s a bad batch, I’m telling you,” the sheriff said. “We’ll have to put off the dinner until next week.” So the word went out throughout the county, the sheriff’s dinner was postponed.
A week later, the day of the big dinner arrived. I arrived late, on purpose. The room was full and loud. I loaded up my plate with french fries, cole slaw and chitlins, both boiled and fried. I sat down with the fire chief, a lawyer and two county commissioners. We all chatted as I finished off my fries and cole slaw. Then it got real quiet as they stopped talking to watch me take my first bite of chitlins.
Unfortunately, I tried a boiled one first. It was so tough I could barely chew it, and as I bit into it a strong pork flavor exploded in my mouth, emitting an odor reminiscent in its intensity and repulsiveness of foul odors from my past – my fraternity house the night after a big party or the showers at summer camp. Now I had eaten all parts of various animals, but that chitlin tasted like nothing I’d ever put in my mouth before or since. As I quickly downed a gallon of iced tea, the whole table laughed uproariously.
Others wandered over to goad me into eating more. Just as I was pouring ketchup all over the fried chitlins, which I hoped would prove to be more edible, a new reporter from the Memphis Commercial-Appeal walked in the door. Spotting a new victim, everybody at my table got up and wandered over to watch him try the chitlins for the first time.
I escaped out the back door. My pride was intact. My Southern heritage was defended. My stomach – well, let’s just say it was a week or two before I returned to get a biscuit from the sheriff’s kitchen, which smelled like chitlins for a long time after the big dinner.