Learning to love livermush

Jerry Hunter can deal with festivalgoers queuing up to heave frozen hunks of his family’s signature livermush. And he’s gotten used to folks joking about the product, a corn-and-pig parts loaf that’s appeared in many a millworkers’ lunch pail. But what still galls him is that so many people refuse to even try livermush, standing on some strange principle that biases them against anything with liver in it.

“Twenty-five percent of the general population won’t even taste liver mush,” sighs Hunter, 59, who – along with his three sisters – inherited ownership of Hunter’s Livermush in Marion. “That hurts. Myself, I can’t see anything wrong with liver. I’ll order a liver and onions now and then.”

These aren’t easy times for a livermush man. Growing skepticism about offal, newfangled farming and changing economic conditions have conspired to undermine the simple livermush sandwich’s once magisterial reign in the rural sliver of North Carolina that runs between the state’s mountain and piedmont regions.

“We’re still running a fairly good volume, but a whole lot of us wish we could see better times,” Hunter says of the area devastated by factory closings throughout the 1990s. “It’s not just livermush. All of us is struggling to stay in existence.”

For years, livermush was one of those products that the public didn’t need to be reminded to buy. Like flour and light bulbs, the “poor man’s pate” invariably found its way into housewives’ shopping carts without any prettily-worded nudging from the Livermush Council. Livermushers confidently skipped Shelby’s annual Livermush Festival, which nearly petered out without their participation. But the state’s five commercial livermush makers have lately acknowledged their product could use some “public relations,” Hunter says.

To help generate positive publicity for livermush, Hunter has agreed to haul out his grill for the second annual Livermush Festival in Marion on June 6. While the 2007 edition of the event was fairly restrained, this year’s schedule includes a livermush cook-off, livermush haiku contest and livermush toss. “We’re looking to have a lot of fun with livermush,” says Freddie Killough, director of the sponsoring Marion Downtown Business Association.

Hunter will be giving away his livermush sandwiches for free.

“I don’t have no sons,” Hunter says. “If I give a livermush biscuit to a little boy, he’ll remember Mr. Hunter forever because he gave him a free livermush sandwich. He’ll never forget that he came with his momma and daddy, and his momma and daddy didn’t have no money, and Mr. Hunter gave him a sandwich.”

Livermush’s popularity has always swung in indirect proportion to North Carolina’s economic fortunes. It arrived in North Carolina via the Great Wagon Road, which German farmers in search of land followed from Pennsylvania. The farmers brought with them recipes for scrapple, a hodgepodge of mixed-up hog scraps and flour. Once in the South, where corn was the favored crop, they pioneered a related dish of discarded pig livers, skins, snouts and cornmeal called livermush.

(Livermush, by the way, isn’t liver pudding, which holds sway east of the Yadkin River line. On that point, devotees are clear. Exactly what distinguishes mush from pudding tastewise is a somewhat murkier issue, although some experts claim the occasional use of rice or cereal as a binder in pudding means it’s not mush.)

Hunter’s parents parlayed a family recipe for livermush into a business in the 1950s, when, as Hunter puts it: “You could go into selling and you didn’t have no regulations on you. You didn’t have to jump so many hoops. Now you get inspected this, inspected that. Nobody trusts anybody to put a clean product on the market.”

Hunter’s father died in March, more than a decade after putting his children in charge of his company, which still turns out upward of 20,000 pounds of livermush each week. Hunter has tried to stick to the same recipe his parents used, but has had to make a few adjustments to account for changes in hog processing.

“Used to they hung up the animal, let the heat get out of it,” says Hunter, referring to the traditional slaughterhouse practice of allowing a freshly killed hog to cool on a hook. “Now they pack everything hot; put in the liver, put on some ice, put in the liver, put in another layer of ice. In my personal opinion, that hurts the meat.”

The Hunters have also modified their seasonings to accommodate different breeds of corn: “They’re fixing all the corn to sell for gasohol,” Hunter says. “It’s got more moisture than we want.”
Livermush is fatty, high in cholesterol and its coarse, earthy flavors don’t always agree with refined palates. But Hunter says none of those things spelled as much trouble for the livermush industry as break room vending machines, food stamps—which render a range of foods as affordable as livermush—and credit cards.

“Until about 1992, all groceries were cash,” Hunter recalls bitterly. “Let’s say you had $60, that’s what you had to spend.” Nowadays, Hunter says, shoppers armed with high-max Mastercards are as likely to buy T-bones as livermush.

“But what’s hurt us more than anything is the mills closing,” Hunter says. “They’re not taking livermush to work with them.”

The demise of the textile industry devastated livermush because the dish is a micro-regional specialty. Beyond the boundaries of Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell and Burke Counties – “we may be in a few stores here, there and yonder, but that’s the four counties we have,” Hunter says – livermush is considered as exotic (and unappetizing) as monkey brains.

“We do not come to Buncombe County, OK?,” Hunter says. “Buncombe County is hamburger country. We came there around 40 years ago and we didn’t do too well.”

Why? Beats Hunter. After fifty years of eating livermush, he still enjoys it “fried golden crisp, with two eggs over easy and gravy poured atop it.” Chefs closer to Charlotte, where the dish hasn’t suffered quite so gravely as it has in northern livermush country, have experimented with spreading the stuff on pizzas and folding it into omelets. Killough said one prospective cookoff entrant “called and said he was going to make livermush lasagna.” “I’ve heard several recipes,” Hunter says. “One little boy come up to me and he says ‘Mr. Hunter, you ever put you some peanut butter on your livermush? I said ‘No son, I haven’t gotten around to that yet’.”

Chuckling, he adds: “Maybe at the festival.”

The Livermush Festival is scheduled for Friday, June 6, from 6:30 p.m.- to 9:30 p.m. on Marion’s Main Street. Livermush costumes are encouraged (really.) Cook-off entries must contain livermush and be submitted in a 8×8-inch disposable pan. All dishes must be delivered by 6:15 p.m.

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17 thoughts on “Learning to love livermush

  1. Bob S

    My family is from Chesterfield just north of Morganton NC. I usually got Liver Mush when visiting from our home near Washington DC. I had a military dad. I always thought it was just a noticeably better form of scrapple. Never the less I always take a package or two home to my friends from the Shenandoah region of Virginia. Even the people that don’t like liver like Liver Mush as long as I don’t tell them It’s not really scrapple until after they try it and ask “what brand of scrapple is this?” All my relatives (western Carolina people) say Hunters is the best! I agree with that even though I like most brands I have tried. My cousin’s wife always has some around. Gotta love her.

    Even though it is only a moderate change of taste from typical scrapple it is very nice from time to time. However, I would not use scrapple if Liver Mush were available “in my neck of the woods”.

    I feel a small footnote requirement here. Several people I know that do not like liver “steaks or chunks” of any kind really do enjoy Liver Mush. It has a much more delicate flavor. Down right yummy!

    As my mother always told us “Just because your friend doesn’t like something doesn’t mean you won’t like it.”

  2. Robin

    I watched the show Bizzarre Food with Andrew Zimmer.They were in N.C. eating liver mush. I looked up recipes and couldn’t find one recipe that included the pigs head like they used on the show. Is there a recipe like that that you know of?

  3. Cotterpin

    I moved to Hickory, NC in 1994 after living most of my life in the South (TN, AL, KY, GA, TX) and the people at my work tried to tell me liver mush was a ‘Southern Thing’. It is not, it’s a food only eaten in Western NC. In contrast, grits is a Southern food eaten across the entire region.

    I’ve never eaten Liver mush, the name is so unappetizing. Take your favorite organ and append ‘mush’ at the end and see if anyone wants to eat it: brain mush, kidney mush, spleen mush … etc.

  4. Sandy

    Tasha, yes you can find livermush in the grocery store, usually located near the bacon or sausage. Cotterpin, are you kidding?? Livermush “is ONLY eaten in Western NC”??? WHER in this world did you hear that from? Livermush IS pretty much a southern thing as well as grits. I’ve lived in South Carolina all of my life and I’ve grown up on livermush, store bought and homemade.

  5. Aurther Johnston

    A LOT OF PEOPLE THAT LIVED IN NORTH CAROLINA HAVE MOVED AWAY AND HAVE TO TRAVEL MANY MILES JUST TO ENJOY THE GREAT CHILDHOOD TASTE OF LIVERMUSH. MY FAMILY HAVE MOVED TO DAYTON TN. AND IF ONE GOES TO MURPHY WE PICK UP JENKINS WITCH IS NOT BAD. HAVEN’T GOT TO TRY JAMENSONS OR HUNTERS YET. WE DON’T LIKE MACKS TO WELL. NEESES IS MY BROTHERS FAVORITE. MY UNCLE USE TO MAKE IT ONCE A YEAR BUT WOULD ONLY LAST A WEEK. I CAN EAT A POUND A SETTING MYSELF AND IM NOT THAT BIG. I’VE EAT A POUND AND A HALF TODAY.

  6. Donna

    My family loves livermush. My mom always made livermush in the winter before she died. As a child, I remember helping my grandpa butcher. My mom was responsible for making the ‘mush.
    Haven’t had any that good in about 10 years.
    Would love a recipe from someone in age to 70-80 from the Wilkes/Alexander County areas of NC. These folks know how to make “MUSH”.

  7. Thomas Davis

    Livermush is not just a North Carolina thing. I grew up in Gaffney, SC and there were a couple of places that made livermush for sale. My great-grandma used to make it from her home for a local market to sell. That was before my time but her daughter, my grandmother made me a batch once. I had to buy a hogs head and a hogs liver for her to make it with. I now live in Florida and would love to buy livermush, but I have to settle for Scrapple which they sell in a local grocery store. I have seen many posts from people outside of the Carolina’s who want to buy livermush. I wonder why one of the companys who complain about their business being down doesn’t offer to ship it. I would buy 10 lbs every month or two.

  8. James Tate

    I am orignally from Morganton N.C. but now I live
    in California.I would buy Liver Mush if someone
    would ship it.Please respond.

  9. Cindy Atkinson

    My husband has made a wonderful breakfast treat for our family for years which he calls, “Hunters Dunkers”. He carefully slices Hunters Livermush into sticks and pan fries each stick carefully turning each stick until perfectly crisp on all four sides. Each stick is then served with mustard as a dunking companion! Yummy and fun too! WHAT a Marketing Idea!!!

  10. Betty Cloer Wallace

    LIVERMUSH, aka LIVER PUDDING
    (Compliments of Green Bough Grange)

    Fresh pork liver
    Red semi-hot pepper, fresh or dried, chopped up fine
    Black pepper, fresh ground, butcher grind (coarse)
    Salt, semi-coarse grind
    Sage leaves, dried and chopped up fine
    __________

    To seal in the blood, wash the liver and scald it briefly in about two quarts of boiling water. Remove and cut into pieces about the size of walnuts. Return to water and cook until tender.

    Remove liver. Chop it up finely, or grind it, or mash it with a potato masher.

    Put liver back into pot of water and bring to boil.

    Stir in one or two cups of cornmeal, stirring constantly until the liver-cornmeal mixture becomes thick and stiff, perhaps 30 minutes.

    Remove from heat and season to taste with red pepper, black pepper, salt, and sage.

    Spoon into rectangular container, press firmly, cover, and chill in refrigerator until cold.

    Eat as is, or slice and make sandwiches with good bread and a thin spread of prepared mustard. Good, also, when slices are rolled in a thin coating of flour and fried briefly in bacon grease.

    NOTE: Livermush is a seasonal delicacy available only at hog-killing time. Fresh pork liver is very fragile and perishable, and it may be purchased only from hog farms or certified meat plants at the time hogs are processed.

    Do not try to substitute any kind of other liver for the fresh pork liver. It won’t work.

    Also, some people cook a small amount of tender lean pork loin along with the liver, but if you are using good pork liver, it is best not to degrade the delicate flavor of the pure liver. Really good livermush resembles a textured pate’ de foie gras and may complement an assortment of crisp vegetables and breads.

    Livermush will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

  11. Betty Cloer Wallace

    SOUSE aka SOUSE MEAT
    (Compliments of Green Bough Grange)

    1 hog’s head, scalded in boiling water and scraped (skin, eyes, ears, and brains removed)
    Other hog parts: liver, heart, and assorted meat scraps from elsewhere on the hog
    Coarse salt, butcher-grind pepper, chopped sage, chopped savory
    3 cups cornmeal
    __________

    Soak head of hog in salt water for several hours or overnight.

    Remove head from salt water, place in large cook pot, cover with fresh water, and boil until all the meat falls off the bones. Head may be cleaved into several pieces if necessary to fit into pot.

    Pick off all the cooked meat from the bones, and sieve out loose meat from the stock. Chop the meat into very small pieces. Save stock.

    Heat three quarts of the stock and add seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, sage, and savory. Bring to a rolling boil.

    Gradually add cornmeal and simmer, stirring constantly until thick (about 30-60 minutes). Lumps will form if you do not stir continuously. Taste occasionally and adjust seasonings as desired.

    Add the chopped meat (liver, heart, meat scraps) to the stock-cornmeal mixture and cook about 15-30 minutes longer, tasting again to adjust seasoning proportions. Add a little more stock if needed.

    Spoon thick mixture into loaf pan or similar container, press firmly, cover, and chill in refrigerator until cold.

    Slice and eat as is, or make sandwiches with good bread and a thin spread of prepared mustard. Good, also, when slices are rolled in a thin coating of flour and fried briefly in bacon grease.

    NOTE: In other parts of the world, souse meat is known as scrapple, hog’s head cheese, and headcheese, but most people in WNC call it souse meat or just plain souse.

    Souse meat should not be confused with livermush. Souse is fattier and coarser with a speckled appearance, while good livermush made with only liver (no other meat added) is more like a textured pate’ de foie gras.

    Souse will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

  12. Mark Burden

    I grew up in Akron Ohio, I am a 28yr old male who fell in love with livermush. My grandmother was from North Carolina and often gave us livermush with our breakfast when i was a kid. I truly love livermush but after my grandmother died some time ago i have not been able to find the deelishes snack anywhere. I am currently living in Texas and am in Culinary school and am trying to inform my classmates of this great breakfast dish. I a really trying to find it so i can get a part of my childhood back that i remember as being fun and great and possibly getting a chance to remember my grandmother.

  13. Alice

    I grew up in SC and loved livermush. I am now in Nebraska and I don’t get back very often. I would love to be able to get my hands on some good livermush. I would be more than willing to have it shipped. I really want my boys to experience some of my childhood foods. Whenever I mention it they always say gross and I just have to laugh.

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