Addendum: the last paragraph in the initial edition of this story was incorrectly worded. It has been changed to reflect the accurate comment... The Publisher
Fred Crisp, former publisher of the News & Observer, told me of the time he received a call from Frank Daniels, then the paper's owner, while Frank was in South Africa.
What's new? Frank asked.
"Saunders just wrote a column about coming out of the closet," Crisp solemnly informed him.
Silence on the other end. Lengthy silence.
Crisp said he finally burst out laughing and told Frank from which closet I'd emerged.
Had I admitted membership in a cult that worships Z.Z. Hill album covers?
Nope - although I did before letting my membership lapse.
Had I confessed to dressing up on weekends like Little Bo Peep and doing the Electric Slide?
Ridiculous: Anyone who knows me knows I would never do the Electric Slide.
In the column that had Crisp laughing and Frank momentarily silenced, I confessed that I - it's still kind of hard to acknowledge it even today - eat chitlins.
Chitlins - if you have to ask what they are, don't ask - are a New Year's Day staple, part of a symbolic meal of collard greens, blackeyed peas and pork: The collards symbolize greenbacks - prosperity - for the new year, the peas represent loose change and the pork represents the indefatigability of the pig, which keeps on moving forward no matter what, even while it's eating.
I know, I know: Most people just eat them because they're scrumptious.
If some people don't attain the level of prosperity they desire in 2020, they may blame it on a shortage of the odoriferous pork delicacy.
Chitlin lovers who showed up at Mama Dip's, the Chapel Hill institution, seeking chitlins for their New Year's Day meal were greeted with the news that they'd run out before Christmas and were unable to replenish their freezer:
T'was the week after Christmas
and all through the town
There wasn't a chitlin anywhere,
not one to be found.
"Our supplier said he ran out," Spring Council told me. Council is the daughter of the restaurant's late founder and namesake. She said they ran out a few days before Christmas, but she expected to have some a week into the new year.
WHAT?? A shortage of pork? In North Carolina?
Those are words that send chills down the spine of chitlin aficionados.
Is the aporkalypse now upon us?
Will grocers have to keep their sausage and bacon under lock and key, like precious gems, providing an opportunity to buy pig's feet to only their most well-heeled customers?
Is the day imminent when we'll be buying pork from shady characters on street corners going "Pssst. Say buddy, I got that prime pork butt. $75 a pound."
Fortune magazine had a story a few months ago about a possible worldwide pork shortage resulting from African swine fever that has killed 5 million pigs in China.
If U.S. farmers start selling more of their hogs to China, will that result in less availability here?
In a speech to the Urner Barry Global Protein Summit in Chicago last year, Arnold Silver, Smithfield Foods' director of raw materials, said the Chinese are "insatiable in their appetite for pork," but he also said Smithfield, the largest global pork producer, will first supply its longtime U.S. customer base before it exports meat to China.
Whew. Thanks, Arnold.
In other words, Chill, you cherishers of the chitlin: there'll be enough to go around.
Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council and a former N&O co-worker, sought to assure that there is no imminent shortage.
"Maybe it was just their supplier who ran out of that one product," he said when I called to ask why Mama Dip's couldn't find chitlins. He also said there is no connection to North Carolina with what is happening in China.
African swine fever has not been detected in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Curliss said North Carolina farmers want to keep it that way. "We're trying to ensure what's happening in China doesn't happen in North Carolina," he said.