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In North Carolina, Livermush Still Wins Hearts

Why Charlotte locals make room for the old-school meat tradition

Clark Barlowe has scribbled the recipe in a grease-stained notebook, but he doesn’t need it. The black book sits on a steel table, underneath the list of tonight’s 12-course tasting menu and a few feet away from the stove where Barlowe stirs a boiling pot of pork shoulder and liver. Onions and garlic perfume the kitchen. He nods. It’s time to drain the pot, carefully reserving the broth. The stewed chunks of pork will pass through a grinder before Barlowe places the mixture back into the broth, bringing it to a boil. He’ll add cornmeal and spices, pour the thickened mixture into loaf pans, and chill it.

Get much outside a 100-mile radius of Charlotte and the reaction to livermush is often a predictable wrinkling of the nose.

Barlowe knows how to make his great-grandmother's livermush because it's the kind of thing families like his, from the rural foothills of western North Carolina, pass down. That her recipe ended up here — in the kitchen of Barlowe's North Carolina-sourced restaurant, Heirloom, in Charlotte — tells you plenty about Barlowe's roots. "I remember my dad taking us to school, before even kindergarten, and stopping so we could get a livermush biscuit," he says. "And that was our breakfast."

Barlowe grew up in Lenior, a town of roughly 18,000 people an hour and a half northwest of Charlotte, a place where stopping at a gas station for a square of fried pork liver with mustard is just what you do. Livermush, in its simplest form, is a loaf of pork liver and meat scraps bound with cornmeal. The chilled mixture sets before it is sliced and fried. Flavored with sage and black pepper, it tastes almost like a softer, richer sausage patty.

"I tell people if they like pâté and they like grits or cornbread, they'll like livermush," Barlowe says. But, he admits, diners can be hesitant. Many have never heard of the dish. Get much outside a 100-mile radius of Charlotte and the reaction to livermush — which is different from scrapple and liver pudding — is often a predictable wrinkling of the nose. "Just the word mush," he says. "It's not great."

Livermush is one of North Carolina's most important food traditions, maybe more significant than barbecue, even, because of its strong ties to a specific region and the fact that it's found hardly anywhere else. Yet some native North Carolinians, families with roots not far from Barlowe's, don't pass it on. My grandmother, who grew up a few towns over from Lenior, ate it regularly as a child, but she didn't make it for my dad when he was a boy. He never fed it to my sister and me, even though we grew up in Charlotte, part of livermush country.

And just like that, in a couple generations, the tradition is lost.

It's a hot — and I mean Southern hot — Friday in late July. Humid, too. I'm standing outside Brooks Sandwich House, a squat cinder block rectangle of a restaurant, waiting on a livermush sandwich in a brown paper bag. A teenage girl yells order numbers into a loudspeaker.

I'm with Tom Hanchett, a historian of the post-Civil War South, who's ordered livermush "all the way" with onions, chili, and mustard. Brooks has been in the same spot, on a side road a few miles from Charlotte's center city, since 1973. It hasn't changed much, but the neighborhood surrounding it has. Down the street, apartments beside a craft brewery rent for $1,700 a month. The city's extending its light rail line a few blocks away. Hanchett and I are the only people who order livermush sandwiches during today's lunch rush. "It's not rich folks' food," he says.

Hanchett has a graying beard and round glasses that nearly bounce from the bridge of his nose when he gets excited. He retired last year after 16 years at the Levine Museum of the New South, but he still leads history talks and food tours for school groups, companies, and retirement homes.

He'll often start by asking if anyone has heard of livermush. Usually, in this city of transplants — Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, with an average of some 68,000 people moving there annually — the answer is no. And so Hanchett will dive into a lesson. "Livermush is a really good example of an immigrant tradition that became everybody's tradition here in the Carolinas."

The tradition started, best anyone can tell, with Germans in the Rhineland who ate something called pon hoss, pork scraps mixed with buckwheat and spices. They brought it to America in the 1700s. In Pennsylvania, it became scrapple, and immigrants brought it down the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley and onto western North Carolina farms.

Livermush became an easy solution for families who didn't want to waste any part of their hogs. They tweaked the recipe, opting for cornmeal instead of buckwheat."It keeps well and you can fry it," Hanchett says. "Which means we Southerners love it."

Livermush sandwiches at Brooks Sandwich House in Charlotte.

But for some reason, he tells me, livermush never made it far beyond western North Carolina. "Food is regional, and whoever it is that called it livermush was here somewhere." Scrapple, still popular in Pennsylvania, tends to have less liver mixed into it; liver pudding, which can be found in eastern North Carolina, is soft and jiggly with flour. "They're similar, but they're not livermush. If you find livermush some place, I'd make you a bet it traces back to folks who came from within 100 miles of Charlotte. It became the food you eat."

Until it didn't. "There are so many alternatives to waking up in the morning and frying up some livermush," Hanchett says. "I think that healthy eating has something to do with it. But I bet —" The loudspeaker crackles. "98 and 99, c'mon inside." Our lunch is ready, but Hanchett wants to finish his point.

"I bet it has more to do with Pop-Tarts. They're just more convenient." You can swap out Pop-Tarts for anything — Cheerios, Egg McMuffins, whatever — but his point resonates. When my grandmother stopped eating livermush, when she chose not to fix it for her family, when my parents gave me Pop-Tarts, when I stirred raspberries and granola into my vanilla Greek yogurt, we made choices that eroded our family's traditions.

I think about that as we step up to a plywood table underneath an ash tree and begin to unwrap our sandwiches. The paper is greasy and my white bun is a little smushed. After a few minutes of quiet eating, I ask Hanchett if it's possible for livermush to disappear from North Carolina kitchens. "People here with German names no longer speak German at home or in church," he says. "It took a long time for them to give that up, but they did. Tradition is not a frozen thing."

Mauney on the on the porch of the company headquarters in Shelby, NC, aka the house Mauney lived in as a boy.

If it weren't for the Great Depression, Harry Mauney might not have a job making livermush. He's at his blonde wood desk at the headquarters of Jenkins Foods, the family business he's run for decades. Put another way, we're sitting in Mauney's childhood dining room. This simple farmhouse with white wooden siding on a two-lane country road in Cleveland County, west of Charlotte, is the house Mauney's grandfather built. In the next room, what used to be the den, a framed picture of two pigs nuzzling snouts hangs above the fireplace mantle. "HOGS ARE BEAUTIFUL!" reads the caption at the bottom.

His mother's father, Benjamin Plato Jenkins, ran a general store until the depression. So Papa Ben, as Mauney called him, started making livermush in big pans. He'd sell them to restaurants and stores, dropping off full pans and picking up empty ones. "They made a living off of it and never did get back in the store business," Mauney says. Papa Ben made mush out of the white farmhouse kitchen for years. But now, Mauney says as he stands and adjusts his suspenders, things are a little different.

We walk out the back door toward a huge white building with an "Employees Only" sign above the door. Here, Jenkins Foods makes an average of 26,000 pounds of mush a week in the winter, a touch less in the summer. That's about 570 tons of livermush each year, the weight of eight tanks, a number that has held steady for the last couple decades, Mauney says. Employees wrap the livermush in one, two-and-a-half, or five pound bricks, and deliver it to gas stations and supermarkets, restaurants, and Walmarts, all within a hundred miles or so of the white farmhouse. Someone is still eating livermush instead of Pop-Tarts.

To underscore that point, I head around the corner — really, you drive a quarter of a mile down the road and take a left — to the competition, Mack's Liver Mush and Meats. Like Mauney, Ron McKee is a third-generation owner who eats livermush every morning.

Ron McKee, the third generation owner of Mack's Liver Mush & Meats, outside his family's business in Shelby, NC.

He shows me around, including the eight giant kettles where the company cooks roughly 312 tons of mush a year. Mack's makes slightly more livermush than it did 10 years ago, something McKee attributes primarily to a diversification of the company's customers. "We work rest homes, day cares, everything in between."

A few hundred pounds will go to Mush Music & Mutts, the state's official livermush festival, held every October in downtown Shelby. Two years ago, McKee says his team sold 1,700 sandwiches or biscuits at the festival. Last year, they made more than 5,000.

The festival is not McKee's favorite thing. "It's a lot of work. We don't make any [money] — we're selling livermush sandwiches, livermush biscuits for a dollar. But we want people to try it." He tells me a story about seeing a woman last year pushing toddler in a stroller. "The little girl was laying into that sandwich. And her mother said it was the first time she had tried it. That's why I do it. Because that's our future."

Back in Barlowe's restaurant kitchen, the chef stirs cups of cornmeal into the boiling pot of meat. "This is almost ready. Maybe needs a minute or two."

He pulls out a pan of chilled livermush and cuts two, inch-thick slices. He drops them into a skillet of shimmering oil. As they sizzle, developing a crispy exterior, Barlowe moves to the metal table, the one where his great-grandmother's recipe sits, and pours the thickened mixture from the pot into a loaf pan. Another chef scrapes the hot mush with a long spoon.

Chef Clark Barlowe making livermush in the kitchen at Heirloom.

Barlowe hopes to pass on regional food traditions, like livermush, to his employees. "It's all about training cooks and people who work in restaurants. They're the ones that are going to carry it on," he says. He points to a couple of his line cooks. "Nate knows how to make livermush from scratch, Miles knows how to make livermush from scratch. He's from New Jersey, Miles is from Pittsburgh. They didn't grow up with livermush. And when they go on to run their own kitchens one day, now they'll know something to do with pig scraps and liver."

He goes back to the stove, lifts the fried livermush out of the skillet with a fish spatula, and sets the pieces on a plate with some fresh grain mustard. We cut ourselves a bite. I go for a crispy corner and Barlowe gets a piece of the soft center.

As we eat, I think about the contrast, this simple food on a plate at one of the best restaurants in the city. It reminds me of something Hanchett, the historian, told me over lunch at Brooks. "When you have a robust tradition," he said, "you have both old school and new school. Without them, the tradition languishes."

Barlowe prefers his livermush served simply — just plain, yellow mustard — but he knows his customers expect more. "I can't just do a livermush biscuit," he says. "They don't want to just see a piece of livermush on a plate." The following night at Heirloom, the fourth course is livermush with radishes, long beans, and a huckleberry gastrique.

Adam Rhew is associate editor of Charlotte magazine and a native North Carolinian.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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