WHAT ARE CHITLINS? The little word conjures up images of a food cute and crunchy. Chitlins are small, like children. English lacks diminutives, which is perhaps why I clung to "chitlins." Spanish pet names, for instance, tower over English in what you can get away with calling someone. "Hey, Little Sausage!" would offend most Americans; but when I heard a shop owner call to her lady friend, "Mi Gordita!" it was with affection that her Li'l Smokey replied, "Eh, Flacita!" See? It doesn't matter what you say; it's how you say it.

The word "chitlins" is the sole reason I put this infamous food in my mouth without knowing what it was. From the sound of it, I imagined something akin to gribenes, little bits of fried skin left over from rendering schmaltz (chicken fat); essentially Kosher popcorn chicken (very delicious in mashed potatoes). That was how it happened: I ordered the Chitlin Dinner ($11.50) at E & M Grocery & Deli's takeout window. The expansive menu said, "Ask for Ethel or Melvin."

"Chitlins are fresh, too," approved a man whom I assumed was Melvin. I grinned, congratulating myself on my daring, and pulled up a stool to the streetside counter, right under the 98.9 FM Smooth Jazz amplified at top volume.

"Honey," Ethel poked her head out the takeout window, "where are you from?" Before I could answer, she pulled a large white tub out of the old glass-paned refrigerator, whipped the lid off, and stuck it under my nose. "Do you know what chitlins is?" Rubbery lumps jiggled a little in her hands. The deep-fat fryer gurgled.

I swallowed and nodded. Perhaps I did not want to know what chitlins is. Ethel resumed her fridge-to-fryer choreography, punctuated by bursts of information about herself and her business. Nine months ago, they moved from their old restaurant (the Country Fisher on 12th Avenue) to MLK and Union. They specialize in Cajun deep-fried catfish and cod. Call ahead--hell, they'll even deliver. Between announcements, Styrofoam clamshells slid out the window, mountains of hush puppies ($1.85) and fried okra ($2.50) rising hot and crisp. The "sides" Ethel doled out exceeded side-size portions in every way.

Sadly, Oxtails and Rice ($6.95 basket/$8.99 dinner) were not available. But I happily slurped at Ethel's Gumbo ($4.50/$9.00), brewed so deep and dark that crab legs clack and sausage appears more frequently on the spoon than rice. Enough meat to stand up to my 22, cradled in a paper bag.

Over MLK, the sky pinkened, streetlights flickered. People stood around chatting, watching cars thrum past, occasionally plunking down money for a pack of gum, cigarettes, 99-cent double-deuce bottles of Mickey's and Olde English. It was Friday night. The chitlin dinner slid, slow and heavy, across the counter.

A serious, abstruse fragrance steamed from the wax-paper-and-foil packet. Artfully arranged with an encircling army of hush puppies, flanked by perfect disks of fried okra on the right and steaming collard greens on the left, the centerpiece looked definitely unfamiliar, recondite. My fork poked into the pale tan pile of irregularly shaped clumps. When I stopped to chew, the meat squeaked a little. It tasted rich, heavy, sweet. Chitlin juice spread across my tongue and clung to my mouth. I had to know.

"The hog's intestines," Ethel spoke after a brief guffaw. "I can't get enough of 'em." I nodded and chewed. Ethel slid over a hot piece of her peach cobbler ($2.25). "Eat this," she commanded. Sticky layers of pastry and peaches, flecked with nutmeg, melted like butter. I decided to eat dessert right in the middle of dinner.

The last bit of light faded and Ethel positioned herself on the sidewalk with me. I stirred my chitlins. Mouthfeel connected with the realization of what chitlins did in the pig, and the fact that I was expected for Shabbat dinner 15 minutes ago. As I closed the clamshell lid, tossed it in my bike basket, and bid Ethel and Melvin good night, feculence swilled over me, pricking my mind with little pebbles of religious guilt.

After much penitent handwashing over the next two days, I returned to E & M for the Three Chicken Wings and Fries special ($2.50). A distinctive light breading, dusting of paprika, and plenty of salt coated each wing. Made to order, not overly greasy, E & M's fried chicken balances the meat-to-crispy skin ratio confidently. And the seasoned fries are no garnish. These people are professionals. "Chicken treating you all right?" Melvin inquired. Yes, sir!

E & M Grocery & Deli
1123 MLK Way, 323-8360
Mon-Fri 10:30 am-10 pm; closed Sat-Sun.
Beer available in the grocery. $

Price Scale (per entrée)
= $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Jan 13-Feb 14 at Bagley Wright Theatre
Part theater, part revival, and all power, this one-woman show will have your head nodding and hands clapping!