Livermush: A Local Legend

Home-cooked livermush on a homemade biscuit baked in the #FoodieScore kitchen

Livermush is a meat made from pork, flour, corn meal and spices. It’s kind of like sausage, and at the same time it’s not at all like sausage. (One commonality is that most people would probably prefer to see neither made from scratch.)

In the foothills of western North Carolina, livermush is standard breakfast menu fare. You’ll find it on a plate with eggs, grits and toast. Or you’ll see it sandwiched in a biscuit. At the Shelby Café in the City of Shelby, you can get your hands on “The Mayor’s Special,” which is scrambled livermush, two eggs, cheese and mayonnaise served wrap-style on pita bread.

Many years ago, one of my grandfathers even recalled eating livermush unheated, sliced and accompanied by saltine crackers in his mill department. In these parts, livermush is so prevalent there are at least two festivals that praise, serve and celebrate it.

Travel outside of this corner of the world, and livermush gets much more difficult to find. You won’t even be able to order it in all corners of the Carolinas. Livermush in Wilmington, North Carolina? Doubtful. Livermush in Charleston, South Carolina? Not likely.

What is likely in most parts of the United States, including the South, is the reaction you’ll get when you say livermush.

“Liver-what?”

“Mush?”

“Eww.”

“I don’t think I want any of that.”

Even many lifetime residents of western North Carolina reject livermush. But it especially has a bad reputation and gets mocked by westerners and northeasterners, at least in conversations I’ve had. But I had an experience a couple years back that debunks the myth that livermush is a trinket unique to my native communities and foreign to the rest of the world.

Even many lifetime residents of western North Carolina reject livermush.

While we were traveling around Philadelphia in Pennsylvania a couple of years back, my wife Molly and I visited The Pop Shop diner in Collingswood, New Jersey. The great state of New Jersey is known for its diners, but it couldn’t be less known for what we in the South call livermush. On the menu at The Pop Shop, we noticed a breakfast meat called “scrapple.” Naturally, we had the same reaction as out-of-towners that most folks who visit Shelby or Marion in North Carolina have regarding livermush: What is that?

Our super-friendly server told us about scrapple, attempting to explain it to a couple of blank-faced tourists who’d just been in the area to see the famous poet Walt Whitman’s former homesite and museum in nearby Camden. We still didn’t quite get it, but we ordered it anyways. What happened when it came to the table and we tried it?

IMG_7571
A side of scrapple served up at The Pop Shop diner in Collingswood, New Jersey, just east of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It looked a lot like livermush. It tasted a lot like livermush. The only difference was the internal texture. While livermush has more grit or grain to it—from the corn meal involved in the process of making it—scrapple had more of a meat pudding texture that I’m sure many fans of livermush would turn their noses from in disgust!

(NOTE: You might find in some oral traditions and online articles that livermush is thought to be a descendant of scrapple. We aren’t sure what came first, other than the pig and the grain, but we must dutifully present that possibility here.)

Scrapple was actually quite good! And it allows me to say that no one who has eaten or heard of scrapple can deny the viability of livermush, even if you don’t prefer the specific taste and/or texture of the latter. They are incredibly similar! The inside texture is different. And, yes, I will give you the argument that the name of livermush isn’t exactly appetizing. But you can’t judge a meat solely based on the name.

No one who has eaten or heard of scrapple can deny the viability of livermush, even if you don’t prefer the specific taste and/or texture of the latter.

Most of my ancestors, at least going back six generations, lived in and around Cleveland and Rutherford counties in western North Carolina. In these parts, the brands Mack’s and Jenkins are household names for their local Shelby-based production of livermush. Better yet, I had a great uncle, Lawrence Hollifield, who at one time ran a meat market and café in the Cliffside-Mooresboro area, and he made what my father and many other people, including me, still regard as the best livermush they’ve ever eaten. Lawrence learned how to make livermush from a local man named Fletcher Ruppe. That’s how most of the best skills got passed down in previous generations to remain alive and well today, a process perfected by one person and taught to another.

I can’t tell you personally that I’ve tried to make livermush, and I don’t have a suggestion per se of how you should make it. I will tell you that if you ever find it in a grocery store—and you will at all of the grocery stores in our communities, even at international chains like Aldi—you should buy a block, slice it up however you like and fry it. You might just like it!

Sausage is great. Bacon might be even better. But livermush is right there with them on the podium of great breakfast meats, at least in our neck of the woods. It lives up to the old saying: “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”

What about you? Have you eaten livermush? Do you like it or hate it? Let us know in the comments below or share with us on Facebook or Twitter!

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