The Liver Mush Mystique

This Southern sensation is finding an audience outside of hardcore regional fans

Food Features
The Liver Mush Mystique

Have you tried liver mush, or do you just cringe at the name? In parts of the South, it’s a beloved breakfast tradition. Even more amazing is its soaring popularity, with its appeal extending beyond breakfast. Some love it, some turn their noses up and some are just plain baffled by it. But it’s undeniable: the sales are rising and the popularity is growing. Liver mush—sometimes called livermush—is a Southern sensation.

That popularity could be attributed to an annual festival held in Shelby, N.C. and centered on this strange loaf. If you’re a Shelby native, you’re probably familiar with all the hoopla. It’s a festival with a following and an unlikely star.

The festival, called Mush, Music and Mutts, attracts thousands. Started in 1987, it’s grown from a few thousand to an estimated 15,000 in 2015. Held each October, there’s music, vendors, a pet costume contest and pet parade, among other highlights. There’s even an annual Little Miss Liver Mush Pageant, attracting entrants from all over the state. But don’t be fooled by all the commotion; the main attraction is liver mush. It’s everywhere. On different corners, you can buy a liver mush biscuit for a buck or two, topped with your choice of mustard, mayo or jelly. If that doesn’t satisfy your palate, local restaurants offer other mush dishes such as liver mush pizza, liver mush sandwiches or liver mush fried rice. The festival offers liver mush treats for your pooch; even Fido loves it. It grows in popularity each year. Folks are drawn to this deliciously weird dish. (So much so that there’s another festival devoted to it in Marion, N.C.)

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Liver mush dog treats at the 2015 Mush, Music and Mutts festival

Locals love liver mush, and that doesn’t stop when the festival ends. It’s a tradition. Some old-timers (a.k.a. my grandmother) say that liver mush was developed out of necessity. She said that during the The Great Depression, the whole pig was used to prevent waste. Liver mush was made from pork liver and other not-so-appetizing parts, such as the snout and spleen. It was bulked up with flour, corn meal and spices and shaped into a loaf. It’s made the same way today.

Most folks love it fried and served on a biscuit; some prefer it as a side dish to their eggs and grits. Some like a thick liver mush omelet, gooey with cheese; others want it scrambled in their eggs. If you’re partial to grits, you might like it diced in yours. Your imagination is the only limit to liver mush versatility. Die-hard mush lovers like their mush prepared a certain way, with no wavering—don’t mess with the mush.

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Fried liver mush on a bun

What does it taste like? You have to wonder about anything with the word liver in it. While many folks think liver mush tastes similar to pork sausage, others disagree. It has a unique flavor that’s difficult to explain. The added spices enhance the flavor, and the texture is soft and smooth. But be careful; if it’s fried too long, it can become dry and less flavorful.

If you’re hankerin’ for mush, plenty of local eateries will oblige your craving. When in Selby, swing by The Shelby Café for their Mayor’s Special, a favorite dish named after former mayor Ted Alexander. It’s grilled pita bread stuffed with liver mush, eggs, cheese, and a touch of mayo. Want something more unusual? Then head to Sushi Dojo on Highway 74 for a taste of their liver mush sushi. Called the Hee Haw Roll, it consists of liver mush, cream cheese and crab. Next, head out to Dayne’s Shingle Shack on Highway 18; they’ll be happy to fry you up a liver mush sandwich and top it with homemade chili and slaw.

The local popularity of liver mush can be linked to two names: Jenkins and Macks. Both are local meat-packing companies that produce and sell liver mush throughout the Southeast. It’s packaged and distributed throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and parts of Florida, Virginia and Washington D.C. It’s even distributed to parts of Pennsylvania (the home state of another polarizing pork-loaf specialty, scrapple).

When asked about its popularity, Jay Mauney of Jenkins Foods said they sell 400-500 pounds at the festival alone, with the unusual loaf gaining sales each year. Made of pork liver, fat, and corn meal, Jay says they add spices like sage, black pepper and hot pepper flakes. For the third year in a row, they offer jalapeno liver mush for those craving mush with a kick.

Jay and Lisa Mauney, of Jenkins Foods

When asked if the packaged product is fully cooked, Jay says it is, and you can eat it right out of the pack. In fact, some people like to spread it on a cracker for a light snack; it’s often referred to as a poor man’s pâté. If you prefer yours cooked, the favorite cooking method is lightly fried; it’s best when the outside is crisp and the center is soft. Some folks plop it in a deep fryer, so it’s crispy through and through. The added corn meal produces a grainy texture, but it’s easy to slice. Whether you prefer it thick or thin, slice it up, fry it up, and enjoy it any time of day.

While liver mush is the most popular of the organ recipes, liver pudding comes in a close second. Since it’s made with less corn meal, it has a softer texture than liver mush. Similar spices are added, and it’s sliced, cooked, and enjoyed the same way as its more popular cousin.

Among those aware of liver mush, you can bet you’ll find more lovers than haters. One thing most folks agree on: don’t read the ingredients. It just tastes better when you don’t. Enjoy the mush mystique. And don’t mess with their mush. Just savor the strangeness and come back for more.

Kelli H. Clevenger writes from her North Carolina horse farm that she shares with her husband, crazy puppy and bossy cat. Southern born and bred, she enjoys cooking and eating all things Southern and still eats a traditional meal of black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day. Her passions are writing, animals, fitness and food; but not necessarily in that order.

Main image by Dale Haas/Wikipedia

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