Now frying, the breakfast specialty of North Carolina's mill towns
Photo: Chuck Shuford
Livermush. There, I’ve said it. As repugnant an appellation as that is, it’s about as accurate a description as can be packed into one word to describe this geographically challenged working class food. Unless you’ve lived in North Carolina at some point in your life, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of it, much less tasted it. The livermush story begins in the mid 1700’s when available land in the upper colonies grew scarce and German farmers, including my ancestors, hit the Great Wagon Road which ran down Virginia's Shenandoah Valley into the western Piedmont of North Carolina. They brought with them a type of pork mush made from hog scraps called scrapple that is still found in the mid Atlantic states. For the uninitiated, scrapple is a mixture of leftover meat parts and flour (frequently buckwheat flour) cooked in a meat stock until it thickens. It is then allowed to set and made into a loaf, like polenta. I grew up eating the better tasting, but unappetizingly named, descendant of that food.
Livermush is definitely populist fare, so don’t expect to find recipes in the Junior League Cookbook. Early settlers made it in cast iron pots and stirred with wooden paddles, incorporating whatever bits of the hog had not been used previously. A regional food born of necessity and hard times, its popularity is thought to have grown during the Civil War when anything edible was valued. Now electric agitators and stainless steel steam kettles are used, but the primary markets are still the mill towns and small rural communities of North Carolina.
The author, age 5, with dog Bullet
near Mooresville, North Carolina (1952)
When I was a child, there were mom and pop groceries in the mountains and in the western Piedmont that made their own livermush but almost all have disappeared. An exception is Walsh’s Grocery in Connelly Springs, NC, where they’ve been making livermush since 1934. A meat market in my hometown steered me to them by offering “They say it’s the best around." David Walsh stands ready to tell you about how his grandfather and father built the business. They usually make around 300 lbs. per week, and it is all sold in the store. Walsh says that a major supermarket chain wants them to make 15,000 lbs a week for its stores but he refuses. “Don’t want to work seven days a week."
What ingredients invite loyalty to this strange sounding food? The primary component is hog liver ““ at least 30% by law to be classified as livermush. As for other hog parts, it really varies from company to company but don’t expect anything below the head. Yep, that includes the snout. One operator told me that they use only “the liver and the skin." After cooking to a proper mush, the mixture is placed in a pan and cooled until it is firm, then sliced into one pound loaves for sale. Livermush is generally flavored with sage, salt, pepper and cornmeal, which to my mind is the foremost culinary blessing in this swinely concoction. I have never had a food that was battered in cornmeal and dropped in hot, bubbling oil that wasn’t lip smacking.
There is a product very similar to livermush called liver pudding; the confusion between the two is not unlike the confusion between sweet potatoes and yams, even though the difference is not as great between the pudding and mush. In fact, one livermush producer told me that there is actually more variance in taste between the different livermushes produced by the five existing commercial producers than between livermush and liver pudding. Two methods can be used to distinguish these dishes. The first involves ingredients. Liver pudding generally does not use cornmeal but rice or various other cereals as a binder. The second method, to my mind, provides a more accurate distinction. Draw a line north to south through North Carolina roughly following the path of the Yadkin River. Anything east of that line is called liver pudding; anything west of the line is livermush. I was advised by one producer that the closer they get to the mountains, their livermush begins to outsell sausage.
Livermush comes precooked but is finished in a skillet and served crispy
Photo: Chuck Shuford
Even though you buy livermush already cooked, it still should be fried in order to get a crispy outer crust. This is universally accepted. The joy of eating is not about taste alone. Gastronomic pleasure is heightened by the other senses as well, so having the sensation of that crunch immediately before you bite into the creamy liver center heightens the gustatory experience. Livermush is primarily eaten as a breakfast food: served with grits and eggs or slathered with mustard and placed between halves of a steaming biscuit. A restaurant in Charlotte, NC, is known to offer a livermush and feta omelet. For some reason, we rarely ate livermush for breakfast in my family but frequently had it for supper with pinto beans and cornbread.
Its proponents believe that livermush is a food for the Gods; its detractors lean toward “abomination" as a descriptive term. I’ve witnessed debates over the subject as fierce as any among devotees of North Carolina’s two barbecue styles — Eastern and Lexington. I have a cousin who can turn down country ham or sausage but is first into the plate when livermush is served. She believes it should be “savored delicately as a pinnacle of Southern culture." A friend raised in the same town began to describe it in a manner I thought complimentary, comparing it to foie gras, but then completed his sentence with “and tastes as I imagine foie gras eaten and fully processed by the goose." (This is far from a compliment.)
For the record, my own taste buds tell me that the truth lies somewhere between those extremes, though leaning comfortably on the tasty side. In fact I find myself most in agreement with North Carolina chef and food writer Sheri Castle, who grew up eating livermush in the North Carolina Mountains and admires the taste but stopped eating it “because I learned to read." Livermush is certainly high in Vitamin A and Iron, but a 2 ounce slice contains 90 calories, 40 of them from fat. And if you’re one of those people who need to boost your cholesterol level, that 2 ounce slice will provide 17% of your daily cholesterol requirement.
Another popular livermush presentation (pass the mustard, please)
Photo: Chuck Shuford
Shelby, N.C., mayor Ted Alexander, on the other hand, touts livermush as the “world’s most perfect food." It may be only idle speculation that his opinion was influenced by the fact that two livermush producers are located in Shelby and for almost 20 years they held a Livermush Expo that drew thousands to the city. While there are no preservatives or chemical additives on the production end, I wouldn’t say that about what goes into the hog. Given the corporate hog raising practices today, my biggest nutritional concern is what remains in the liver when it leaves the hog.
This debate over the toothsome quality of this dish captures what is perhaps the key, compelling livermush question. Is one’s love of livermush a culinary preference or a deep seated geo-culinary orientation? My own unscientific but extensive survey, tells me several things. If you weren’t raised on livermush, you probably will not develop a taste for it. In fact I haven’t met anyone from out of state who relishes it. The closest I came to an out of stater saying something polite about this dish was a statement from a native east Tennessean. John Shelton Reed, an esteemed sociologist of things Southern, has taught at the University of North Carolina since 1969 and is writing a book on North Carolina barbecue, so he has a fondness for pig. His take on livermush? “I've only eaten it once. It was OK. It was fried nice and crisp. I like liver, anyway. But I haven't sought it out since."
The second thing my survey tells me is that if you’re a native Tar Heel but Episcopalian, it’s not likely to be a part of your world. Finally, if you’re Southern Baptist or Methodist or if your family members worked in the textile mills or had grease or dirt under their fingernails after a days work, you love the stuff and don’t hold with people talking bad about livermush.
None of this should be surprising. Every culture has its prized foods that outsiders can’t stomach. Scotland has its national dish, haggis: sheep's heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and boiled with a stock in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour. You won’t find that on the menu even in the North Carolina Highlands.
The specialty of Drexel, North Carolina: mush on a stick
Photo: Keith Massey
Fortunately people have a sense of humor about this mongrel meat. Drexel, NC, a mountain community of 1,900 dependent upon textile and furniture industries for most the 20th century, has a Livermush Festival sponsored by the First Church of God. The festival owes its existence to Pastor Tony, an Arizona native who was offered livermush by his adoring parishioners shortly after his arrival. Unfortunately, Pastor Tony couldn’t make it slide down his gullet. There was a good natured give and take and one day the pastor made a joke about it from his pulpit. Out of that joke came the festival, which draws 800-1,000 people with its theme “Everything but The Squeal." Their most successful product? Livermush on a stick, which is livermush rolled in a batter, skewered and fried. Pastor Tony says, “We can’t make enough of it." He then offered, “Maybe livermush slushies are next."
As far as I can tell, there are only five commercial livermush producers on the planet, they are all located in North Carolina, and all remain family owned and operated. Two of these (Mack’s and Jenkins) are located in Shelby in the southwestern part of the state and a third (Hunter’s) is 45 miles north in the mountain community of Marion. In the piedmont city of Greensboro, you’ll find Neese’s, a company also known for its sausage, and in tiny China Grove, it’s Corriher’s. Even more important to those of us raised on this culinary oddity who no longer live in the Tar Heel state is the fact that distribution is limited almost exclusively to North Carolina .
What is the future for a popular but very local working class food in the age of fast food chains wed to national menus? The producers who have boosted sales owe that increase to a market that’s geographically expanding ““ it’s not that current markets are eating more livermush.
Phyllis Hunter Harmon, whose father started Hunter’s livermush in 1955, offered disarmingly open comments about their business to a stranger who happened to inquire. Hunter’s serves five rural counties and has ten employees. Seven of those ten are family — the four children of the founder who all have ownership and three grandchildren. In the week before I spoke with her at the end of August, Hunter’s had produced 20,000 lbs of livermush, but in times past they have produced 30,000 or more pounds per week. It’s not that people like livermush less but increasingly they eat at fast food restaurants where it isn’t served. Plus the demographics of the state are changing. Between 1990-1998 North Carolina had a net gain of over 500,000 domestic migrants, a large portion of those coming from upstate New York. I tossed that little gem to an old buddy from North Carolina recently and he winced, stared at me and said in a plaintive drawl “Well, hell, that can’t be good for livermush."
Harmon doesn’t necessarily see a bright future for her father’s company unless they dramatically change their marketing. The heart and soul of this company, she explained, has been the mom and pop restaurants and locally owned markets. “This is the way we started, and my dad, (now 83) believes that is who we should serve." They try to stay in the smaller population centers and even those places are changing. They used to sell 650 lbs. a week to a catering service that sent trucks out to the nearby mills and factories, but now there are few factories and the catering service has vanished.
There is a Waffle House one half mile from the Hunter’s plant and customers have requested that they add livermush to the menu, but Harmon says it’s a national chain and they want the same menus at each restaurant. Her ten year old is already talking about joining the family business, but she wonders if it will be around then. “We’re thinking about going into Wal-Mart ““ thinking about it.." She emphasized “thinking," indicating that there is a debate among family members: they are clearly torn by the choices they face. The family is very committed to locally owned businesses even as they disappear, and Harmon wonders if placing their product in Wal-Mart will undercut those locally owned businesses. But she knows that something has to change. It will be a sad day if livermush becomes a relic of esoteric gastronomic literature.
While I and almost everyone I interviewed emphasize frying, the title of this article refers to this morsel as a pÃ¢té. This is not a lightly chosen moniker. Perhaps this story from my son offers a hopeful future for this strange little food that has nourished many a millworker and farmhand. “The restaurant was semi high dollar with a bistro atmosphere and I ordered a pÃ¢té appetizer. When it came out, it was served cold over a bed of greens and drizzled with a roasted pepper aioli. I took a bite and it was a really familiar taste. When I inspected the dish I noticed that the pÃ¢té wedges were triangular as though cut off a rectangular loaf and then halved diagonally. And the pÃ¢té had the telltale livermush bumps on the outside. I knew the chef and when he came out I asked him if he sold much of his pate. He said that it was a new addition to the menu but it was catching on fast. I then recommended that he take away the bed of greens and aioli and serve with a dinner roll and some French's mustard because it reminded me a lot of the cold livermush sandwiches my granny used to eat. He gave me a quick nervous look and then went over to talk to the manager. Our dinner was paid for by the restaurant and the chef made sure to send over a nice bottle of wine to go with the rest of the meal. Nothing more was said."