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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012

Forget BBQ, Michelle. Try our livermush

By Elizabeth Leland
Published in: The New South
  • Watch livermush being made:

    Fitzhugh McMurray whips up a batch on CharlotteObserver.com

    Taste of America TV show visits Shelby: youtube.com/watch?v=2HIpRRxta4w


  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    Today: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    July 15: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    For DNC visitors, the series will be featured online at charlotteobserver.com.


  • About the series

    Before 35,000 outsiders descend on Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, the Observer is taking a look at some of the people, places and events that make the area distinctive.


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    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?

    Livermush?

    Yes, if this part of North Carolina is known for any type of food, it is livermush. Poor man’s 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. I’m 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 Fitzhugh’s 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 didn’t mention livermush.

    “You’ll find livermush within about 100 miles of Charlotte,” said Newsom, associate director of urban and regional affairs for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. “There’s probably a livermush line. If you get outside the line, you can buy it in a grocery store, but you can’t order it at a restaurant.”

    Jenkins and Mack’s are two producers in Cleveland County, Neese’s in Guilford, Frank C. Corriher’s in Rowan and Hunter’s in McDowell. They sell their livermush mostly in the Carolinas. The only place you’ll find Fitzhugh McMurry’s mush is in the meat case at McMurry Store and Farms on N.C. 18 near the only traffic light in Fallston.

    His mother’s recipe

    The day photographer Todd Sumlin and I visited, Fitzhugh had been simmering a big pot with pig’s 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. It’s his mother’s recipe, if you call it a recipe. Fitzhugh doesn’t measure ingredients. No batch, he said, is ever alike.

    Cooks traditionally used fatty scrap meat from the pig’s head to make livermush. Fitzhugh prefers a leaner cut from pork shoulders and backbone, often from pigs he raised.

    “It’s hard to make any money out of this stuff because it takes so much time to make,” he said. “It’s 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: “It’s a’ getting there.”

    “What’s it taste like?” I asked.

    “It tastes like livermush.”

    After I quit laughing, he elaborated: “It tastes something similar to sausage although it’s got a little liver taste. A lot of people load it down with liver. I don’t put as much it. It makes it bitter.”

    In novelist Jan Karon’s books about a fictional North Carolina town called Mitford, the church sexton has a craving for livermush. Karon said one of the five questions she’s most often asked by readers is:

    What is livermush?

    “True livermush is as rare as hen’s 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 Karon’s series launched in the mid-1990s. “It’s a rural thing,” Purvis said. “It’s not a city thing.” She said there’s 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 Fitzhugh’s pot turned the consistency of thick pudding, he scooped up a mouthful.

    “Yeah,” he said. “It’ll 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 didn’t want to offend him. He was so nice, he even told me I didn’t 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.

    “Mmm-mmm.”

    He chewed a little more.

    “Yeah. That’s good. That’s right on.”

    Another bite.

    “You got a little red pepper in there, don’t you? It’s got a little kick to it. That’s real good.”

    The best he’s ever eaten.

    Leland: 704-358-5074

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