By Mark Wilson
Canton, North Carolina
Cornmeal and spare parts. That’s what you’ll hear sizzling in kitchens and diners all along the “Livermush Superhighway.” I define that as a stretch of U.S. Highway 74 in North Carolina, running roughly from Charlotte through the unofficial livermush capital of the world in Shelby to its terminus somewhere around Haywood County or Jackson County.
Sure, you might find livermush in other places. Interstate 40 from Statesville to Asheville could be considered a “Livermush Backroad,” but nowhere does that holy mix of sage, undesirable pig parts, and milled corn stir the hearts of the faithful like it does in the foothills from Charlotte to where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise in the west.
Growing up just outside of Charlotte, my family blessed me with a regular diet of livermush. My experience is not unique. In fact, an affinity for livermush is a bonding agent for folks who grew up in the North Carolina foothills. The hyper-regional dish has expanded its reach over time, but it’s a galvanizing force for only a small group of people. When my college roommates and I showed up to the apartment with livermush, we knew we had a certain shared past. When my wife and I were dating, and she chose livermush (of all things!) off the menu, it was love at first dish.
For the uninitiated, I should explain what livermush is: cornmeal, water, flour, salt, pepper, sage, pork liver, and maybe cayenne pepper. Pinch your nose and cook the liver. Mix in other ingredients in some proportion. Form it into a bread shaped loaf. Slice in squares. This is where consensus ends. From this point of pre-cooked, pre-seasoned liver and cornmeal, a plethora of deviations appear. Deep-fried or pan sautéed. Lightly browned or hard-seared. Sliced thin (1/4 inch), or slice thick (1/2 inch). Some folks heartier than I even take it straight. After it’s re-cooked, there are even more options. The classic presentation would be on white bread with mayonnaise and a hard-fried egg. Add a pat of yellow mustard to make it truly soar. I’ve heard murmurings that some like it with a smear of grape jelly. My preference is hard-seared, with a bit of Dijon mustard (a nod to being raised with one foot in the past and one in the modern world), and dipped in the yolk of an egg cooked sunny-side up. It’s hard to go wrong in decorating this dish. Livermush, despite its humble origins, is a near perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
To spread the gospel of livermush, I once prepared my preferred method for a friend from New York. Although she is a particular eater, I felt livermush was primed to invade the hearts and taste buds of those reared above the Mason-Dixon Line. My strategy in maximizing her appreciation of this dish was to serve another North Carolina favorite the night before — another product wrought from the union of corn and water, but distilled for maximum effect). It wasn’t the best hooch I’ve ever laid hands on. In fact, the rest remained for years in a half-full Mason jar in my cabinet, thanks to my fear of unleashing its otherwise dormant potential for malady. I have personally found livermush to be the right cure for my own mistakes of excess and thought it might enhance the experience. The response was...unenthusiastic. It seems livermush is not an acquired taste so much as a birthright. In fact, if you don’t eat your first livermush before age 5, it's unlikely you will ever develop a taste for it. But if it’s fed to you in childhood, you will never rid yourself of your love for it.
After recently moving from the heart of livermush country further up the Livermush Superhighway, I had some concerns about my ability to find it at my local grocer. My first grocery store visit did nothing to assuage these worries. I panicked. The next time I visited home I laid my fears out to my entire family. Their response to my fear of living without an easy supply amounted to “better you than me.”
I immediately snapped into crisis-planning mode. My wife and I debated the likelihood of livermush maintaining its character after being frozen in bulk. I considered whether I could have it shipped to the livermush blackhole I had found myself in (the notion I could buy anything on Amazon having been quickly debunked). In a fit of nerves, I made a last-ditch effort at a different grocery store where I was pleasantly surprised to find that I would not die of a broken heart. While I did — and still do — expect to be able to choose between Neese, Jenkins, and Mack’s, hot or spicy, I am relieved to know I can find a version of my beloved dish at my local grocery and am thankful every day I didn’t move a few more miles up the road.
Times of great panic often lead to times of deep reflection, and in my frenzy over locating my breakfast of choice, I did pause to think about livermush’s larger place in the world. If a word could ever describe our modern society it would be diaspora. Those my age rarely have the privilege of planting their own lives in the dirt that grew them. As in the past, the asphalt that supports sprawling cities often yields the jobs that provide a livelihood for people of my generation. The urban-rural divide is more than a political puzzle to solve. Its deeper than whether you drive a Prius or a pickup truck. It’s a change in how we view the world and our own place in it. The South remains predominantly rural, and many people who make populate the cities in this region do not claim those same cities as “home.” Those folks know pieces of themselves will always belong elsewhere. Reconciling that duality is an ongoing project in personal reinvention. It is neither good nor bad, but simply worthy of acknowledgment.
Technology has shrunken our world in a way that allows us to grow up in North Carolina, work in Texas or California, and still spend our evenings and weekends in the living rooms of the homes we were raised in. Before the internet, we never had a world that allowed us to move away from home and yet never leave. In spite of that, one thing I know to be true is this: You cannot taste livermush through a webcam.