ATLANTA - Elliott Mizell likes nothing better than to dig into a plate of them served with hot sauce or cole slaw. George Prather will eat them anytime.
Boiled or fried, served with rice or without, it just isn't Christmas in the South unless chitterlings are on the menu.
"It's a tradition," said Mr. Mizell, of Warner Robins, who grew up on the holiday hog parts. "My mother cooked them for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Every holiday, we knew we were going to have chitterlings."
Chitterlings are pig intestines and a favorite of some Southerners. From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, families whip up buckets of the stuff - a feat often more taxing than cooking a turkey.
But if they aren't cooked right, the bacteria can sicken and even kill. For the first time, the Georgia Department of Human Resources is warning that cooks should boil chitterlings before they clean and cook them.
"chitterlings take hours to prepare," said Anne Peterson, an epidemiologist for the state. "They are messy. The cooks get the fat and juice all over their hands. If they touch anything, the bacteria will spread."
Young children are especially at risk. The bacteria, called yersinia enterocolitica, causes severe diarrhea that can hospitalize children for a week. In Buffalo, N.Y., an infant died last year from the bacteria.
This is the time of year when health officials see a jump in the number of cases of severe diarrhea, Ms. Peterson said.
There were at least 70 cases of the bacteria poisoning in Georgia last year, and Ms. Peterson estimates many more went unreported because doctors may have diagnosed only the diarrhea and didn't look for the bug.
Boiling the intestines before cleaning and cooking them will kill the bacteria. The DHR also recommends that cooks thoroughly scrub their hands, and even the sink ought to be cleaned out with water and bleach.
Further, cooks should keep children out of the kitchen while they prepare the chitterlings because the innards are messy and can easily contaminate countertops, baby bottles, formula, utensils and other food.
"You can't clean your hands enough with this stuff," Ms. Peterson said. "You have to use soap and water and really scrub. If you have an urgent interruption, you aren't going to have enough time to get it off your hands."
And don't trust the packages that say "pre-cleaned." It's better to boil the chitterlings anyway, just to be on the safe side, Ms. Peterson said.
Still, Mr. Mizell said most chitlin pros already know the rules.
"You don't eat everyone's chitterlings, because not everyone knows how to cook them," said Mr. Mizell, who eats only his mother's version. "I don't even trust myself cleaning them."
And beware of the bare chitlin, he said.
"They taste like barbecue when you put hot sauce on them and they taste salty when you put salt on them, but I wouldn't want to eat them plain," Mr. Mizell said.
Said Mr. Prather, 72, of Atlanta, "I'll eat them as long as they are cooked right."
The DHR is handing out brochures and fliers on safe chitlin cooking in all of Georgia's county health departments, churches and through the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
Source: Georgia Department of Human Resources