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.
This article was originally published on Eater.com.
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."
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."
Photography by Adam Rhew