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Livermush Exposed 

Extolling central North Carolina's mongrel meat

There are few words you can put in front of "mush" to make it sound even worse, right? Now add the word "liver." Sounds enticing, doesn't it?

When you learn what goes into livermush, it doesn't get any better, since it's a mixture of pig liver (at least 30 percent, by law), head parts and cornmeal. Funny, then, how people in central North Carolina love it so. Funny how Shelby, NC, mayor Ted Alexander has proclaimed it "the world's most perfect food." Indeed, that same town hosts something called the Livermush Expo, which draws thousands every year.

Some of its fans enjoy publicizing the unusual meat. Jan Karon, author of a series of books set in fictional Mitford, NC, has her characters eating livermush in almost every volume. And then there's Mr. Alexander, who loves livermush so much he spells it with a capital "L" -- "out of respect," he says -- and eats it at least once a week, whether at home or away. "When my daughter Christina and I go camping, she always insists that we take livermush with us, too."

As the unofficial spokesman of livermush, Alexander has seen the processed meat product move from regional joke to feted culinary oddity in the 17 years since Shelby first celebrated its first Livermush Expo. The award-winning festival still packs the streets once a year in celebration of this strangest of meats.

Thought to be a descendant of scrapple, livermush was most likely brought south through the Appalachian mountains by German settlers. It was thought to have thrived throughout the Civil War, when any available foodstuff had to be stretched as far as possible.

Yet, even as people in the region have seen their local economies grow dramatically, livermush remains a mealtime staple, without any of the advertising and marketing tricks companies sometimes like to use to sell potentially icky foodstuffs.

Much like the town it's centered around, everything's right there for the world to see.

Whether due to nostalgia, family tradition or shock value, livermush is now hotter than ever. Literally, in fact: responding to overwhelming demand, most companies now make a "hot 'n' spicy" version as well as the milder type.

"Livermush is just an institution around here," Alexander says. "You can't get good nutrition like this just anywhere, and we are always proud of that fact. It's truly the world's most versatile food."

Strange thing is, he may be right. Restaurants like Charlotte's Landmark Diner offer such delicacies as a livermush and feta omelet, and Tony's Pizza in Boiling Springs was known for offering several varieties of livermush pizza.

However you slice it -- fried as a breakfast meat, eaten cold in a sandwich or tossed on top of a pizza -- livermush can boast of being high in protein and low in fat, yet it doesn't weigh down the pocketbook.

Although the price has increased over the years -- one could purchase a five-pound block of the stuff for around 10 cents a pound in the 1930s and 1940s -- livermush will still set you back only about $2 for a brick-sized loaf at almost any grocery store in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Sales are climbing, too, with regional producers such as McKee's turning out about 4,000 pounds of livermush daily.

Alexander says he recently learned that the "godfather of bluegrass music," Earl Scruggs, a Shelby native known for his banjo playing, also loves livermush. Makes sense. Earl always did know how to pick 'em.

Leftovers: Saveur magazine's annual "Saveur 100" is out, and if you buy one food magazine this year, make it this one. Again showing the breadth of coverage (Daniel Boulud shares space with a piece on Talk O' Texas spicy okra pickles) and quality writing the magazine has become famous for, it's one of those issues you'll want to keep and look back at months or years later.

Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site, where a different version of this article first appeared.

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