FALLSTON Despite what Michelle Obama may have thought, the Charlotte area is not known for barbecue.
But who can blame her for praising our great barbecue when Democrats announced the host city for their upcoming convention? Can you imagine the ribbing Charlotte would have endured if the first lady raved about our livermush?
Yes, if this part of North Carolina is known for any type of food, it is livermush. Poor mans pate, some call it.
I left Charlotte in search of the delicacy and ended up 45 miles away in the town of Fallston. Fitzhugh McMurry was stirring up a batch in the back of his country store. Im here to report that livermush is a mix of ground-up pig parts and liver, spices and corn meal, cooked to a mushy consistency, then set overnight to harden, cut into slices and fried crispy.
I grew up on the coast where people prefer their grits with shrimp, but folks in these parts swear by livermush with grits. Customers drive from miles around to buy loaves of Fitzhughs homemade mush and not just for breakfast. They fry it up for lunch and dinner, too.
Livermush is thought to be a descendant of scrapple, which has the same basic ingredients and was brought south from Pennsylvania by early German settlers. Historians say it may have caught on during the Civil War when hungry Southerners found a use for every part of the pig. It seems they never lost their taste for it.
When I set out to write a series about what makes our region distinctive, I turned to former colleague Mary Newsom, who said I would be remiss if I didnt mention livermush.
Youll find livermush within about 100 miles of Charlotte, said Newsom, associate director of urban and regional affairs for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Theres probably a livermush line. If you get outside the line, you can buy it in a grocery store, but you cant order it at a restaurant.
Jenkins and Macks are two producers in Cleveland County, Neeses in Guilford, Frank C. Corrihers in Rowan and Hunters in McDowell. They sell their livermush mostly in the Carolinas. The only place youll find Fitzhugh McMurrys mush is in the meat case at McMurry Store and Farms on N.C. 18 near the only traffic light in Fallston.
His mothers recipe
The day photographer Todd Sumlin and I visited, Fitzhugh had been simmering a big pot with pigs meat and liver since around 7 that morning. A savory sausage-like smell hit us when we opened the door.
Fitzhugh is 72, a farmer by trade, and has been cooking livermush since he was a teenager. Its his mothers recipe, if you call it a recipe. Fitzhugh doesnt measure ingredients. No batch, he said, is ever alike.
Cooks traditionally used fatty scrap meat from the pigs head to make livermush. Fitzhugh prefers a leaner cut from pork shoulders and backbone, often from pigs he raised.
Its hard to make any money out of this stuff because it takes so much time to make, he said. Its sort of like the guys who get into the watermelon business. They buy the watermelons for $2 and sell them for $1, and they make no money so they decide to get a bigger truck.
I need a bigger livermush pot.
What is livermush?
His is a pretty darn big pot. He struggled to lift it off the stove and empty the meat into the top of a commercial grinder. He and Joe Workman, a cousin who helps out around the store, separated the meat from the bones.
Then Fitzhugh poured the liquid stock through a strainer and back into the pot. He pushed the meat through the grinder and dumped the ground-up meat in with the stock, then carried it all back to the stove.
Into that went a bag of seasoning and handful after handful of white cornmeal. Fitzhugh stirred the concoction for 20 minutes or so, feeling for a certain consistency and listening for just the right sound from the steam bubbling up.
Finally, he announced: Its a getting there.
Whats it taste like? I asked.
It tastes like livermush.
After I quit laughing, he elaborated: It tastes something similar to sausage although its got a little liver taste. A lot of people load it down with liver. I dont put as much it. It makes it bitter.
In novelist Jan Karons books about a fictional North Carolina town called Mitford, the church sexton has a craving for livermush. Karon said one of the five questions shes most often asked by readers is:
What is livermush?
True livermush is as rare as hens teeth and is found only in North Carolina, she wrote in The Mitford Bedside Companion. Indeed, once it travels over the state line, it becomes scrapple which is to livermush what the carpet bag was to the South.
Kathleen Purvis, who is food editor at the Observer, said she began getting calls about livermush from curious readers after Karons series launched in the mid-1990s. Its a rural thing, Purvis said. Its not a city thing. She said theres a similar dish in Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina that goes by a different name: Liver pudding.
Just a spoonful
When the mush in Fitzhughs pot turned the consistency of thick pudding, he scooped up a mouthful.
Yeah, he said. Itll be all right, I believe.
He poured the 30 pounds of mush into a large rectangular pan that he would refrigerate overnight. Livermush sets in the cold and can then be cut into blocks for sale at $3.29 a pound.
Most people cut the blocks into slices and fry them. But the best way to eat livermush, Fitzhugh said, is right out of the pot.
He handed me a spoon.
Fitzhugh is a sweet man and went out of his way to welcome us into his store. He patiently answered all my questions, and took 15 minutes that afternoon to talk with a boy working on a school project about molasses, which Fitzhugh makes on his farm.
I didnt want to offend him. He was so nice, he even told me I didnt look a day over 35. But I was vegetarian for most of my adult life and still rarely eat meat and have never appreciated liver.
For purposes of this story, I told him Todd had volunteered to be the taster. He grew up around these parts and has enjoyed eating fried livermush since he was a little boy.
Todd put down his camera and took a bite.
He chewed a little more.
Yeah. Thats good. Thats right on.
You got a little red pepper in there, dont you? Its got a little kick to it. Thats real good.
The best hes ever eaten.