Even the most precocious child knows only what she knows. The term “square meal” baffled me as I sat at my grandmother’s table and ate from round plates and bowls, except for the weekly livermush sandwiches she served between sunrise and the noon news. Anybody paying the least bit of attention could see that was a square meal: four-cornered slabs of crisply fried breakfast meat aligned between two slices of store-bought gauzy white bread of equal dimensions, edges as straight as if they’d been planed. People act like there’s mystery about livermush, but the name (sometimes divided out as “liver mush”) offers blatant clues to the main ingredients. There’s pork liver and cornmeal mush. No one is selling a pig in a poke here.
On the other hand, such candid words are what make some people blanch and back up. Many people who enjoy charcuterie in which pig livers and lesser parts are pureed and molded find meats with tonier pseudonyms, such as pâté and terrine, more in their verbal comfort zone. As with many regional foodstuffs with a small footprint, at the mention of livermush, people either get a faraway look of reminiscence, or take on an expression that says they’d rather stay far away.
Livermush is working-class and blue collar. It hails from North Carolina hilltops and foothills that once hummed with tractors, textile mills, and furniture factories, manned by the foot soldiers of industry. For the most part, families that ate livermush lived frugally and made do with homemade. But most of them started buying commercially made livermush instead once it became available in country and company stores. The livermush business was born during the Depression, an unlikely time to launch a successful enterprise, unless you sold a product that hungry people could recognize, afford, and enjoy.
Unlike bacon and country ham (or, for that matter, chitlins), livermush never took off and captured a wider palate and audience. To this day, the epicenter of livermush is a handful of counties in western North Carolina that run partway up the sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In those loyal counties, where the five commercial producer—Mack’s, Neese’s, Jenkins, Hunter’s, and Corriher’s—remain, livermush is loved and feted. Wherever two or more are gathered in its name, a festival breaks out. Consider Mush, Music and Mutts in Shelby, North Carolina’s official—but not only—livermush festival, where for one day each year (October 15 this year), the downtown squirms with 10,000 people seeking a big time and a little livermush.
The angel is in the details when it comes to livermush. It shares lineage with scrapple, souse, head cheese, liver pudding, and other scrape-together pork products that utilize the slim pickings left from a fat pig, but it’s not the same. Livermush is finely ground, fully cooked (but not smoked), and includes enough cornmeal binder to make it sliceable. It’s smooth, but not slick. Rich, but not greasy. Seasoned, but not spicy.
Livermush comes in one-pound blocks the size and shape of a brick. The blocks were once sold neatly wrapped in butcher paper with perfectly creased, gift-wrap corners, but these days it comes sheathed in plastic. For serving, slabs sliced about a half-inch thick are seared in a greased cast-iron skillet, which works wonders, browning and crisping the outside while gently warming the inside. Cooked livermush fills the air with eau de innards, like giblets on Thanksgiving Day.
People eat livermush for breakfast meat alongside eggs, or on a sandwich made with sliced bread, toast, or maybe a biscuit (though that kind of square-peg-in-a-round-hole incongruity bugs me). Unlike sausage or bacon, livermush is never the base of gravy because it renders almost no grease. The simple sandwiches remain undressed other than a big squirt of yellow mustard. Not even Duke’s mayonnaise or Miracle Whip.
I was served plenty of livermush when I was a little kid, mostly because my granddaddy loved it and my grandmother fixed what he loved, and in those days kids were fed as though they were family instead of a sub-species that requires pelleted food. I tapered off livermush as I grew up, learned to drive, and headed farther out into the world, where more meals were drive-through with friends instead of sit-down with family.
For about thirty years, there was one annual exception, and that was at the North Carolina State Fair. Neese’s and/or Jenkins always had a booth in the Jim Graham Building in the heart of the fairgrounds. All day, workers cut bricks of livermush into bites the size of sugar cubes, fried them up, and stabbed them onto frill picks. Fairgoers would queue patiently, awaiting their turn to lift a pick from the tray, and pop that free bite into their mouths as though it were a communion wafer. The liver of our pigs, given for you. Even during the years I was staunchly, even insolently, vegetarian, I had my annual bite of livermush.
These days I don’t eat livermush as often as I could, but I defend it as often as I can. Food that’s weird to people who’ve never heard of it isn’t weird to those who grew up eating it. Livermush matters to people who matter to me. I am from western North Carolina, and I know my place.
Sheri Castle is a food writer, recipe developer, and speaker who hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and now plies her trade near Chapel Hill. She is fueled by mountains, farmers' markets, bourbon, and the search for the right word.