Gather ’Round for Liver Mush
The NC Fall Liver Mush Festival offers ‘Mush, Music and Mutts’By Renee C. Gannon
“What is liver mush?” asked a few friends (who aren’t from around here) when I mentioned attending the NC Fall Liver Mush Festival in Shelby.
Well, it’s dark gray with small specks of white, comes in a rectangular block and has a slight gritty, peppery texture.
What do you do with it? Growing up in Concord, it was a staple in my family’s fridge. Slice it right out of the wrapper and slap on saltine crackers for a quick snack, fry for a sandwich or as a companion to your morning eggs and grits.
But what IS IT? Instead of describing it myself, I turned to Emily Epley, director of Visit Cleveland County, which organizes the festival every year. According to Emily, liver mush is a “micro-regional” food probably brought to the southern Piedmont by German immigrants. “It is a pork product created at a time when people raised their own food and used all the animal,” she explains. “So after the pork roast, chops, ribs, etc., were taken, the farmers would boil off head meat and include liver, then add cornmeal and seasonings into the pot until well-cooked and blended together.”
The mush would then be poured into a rectangular pan and refrigerated, creating “bricks.” It is fully cooked at that point, adds Emily. And let’s not confuse it with liver pudding, which is made with flour and has a softer texture; or scrapple, which contains less liver.
These liver mush bricks are featured in the festival’s Liver Mush Eating Contest. Brave patrons set at a table faced with one-pound bricks of liver mush, condiments such as ketchup and mustard, water, napkins and a bucket at their feet, ready to put away as much as possible in this timed event. Onlookers often chant “Mush! Mush! Mush!” as the clock ticks down. In 2022, Michael Ellis topped others by eating almost two bricks for his fifth title.
The festival also features a cook-off and a recipe contest, showcasing ingenious ways to include the local food staple in a multitude of dishes.
But this festival offers something for everyone, even those who do not wish to partake in the liver mush. More than 80 vendors at the festival include arts and crafts, food and beverage trucks, community associations, games for kids and a kids’ costume parade.
Why throw a party for liver mush on a beautiful, crisp Saturday in October? Since 1985, the festival has celebrated this Southern pâté — part of the triumvirate in this area: music, agriculture and food.
Tradition, alive and well
The area is known as the Carolina’s Land of Rhythm and Roots. Cleveland County is home to singer-songwriter Don Gibson and music legend Earl Scruggs. The Earl Scruggs Center sets in the middle of uptown Shelby, serving as a focal point for the festival. In its early days, Cleveland County was an agrarian society. German and Scots-Irish settlers brought food as well as traditional roots music as they migrated to North Carolina.
“Liver mush and music overlap because of the alignment of traditional music, agrarian society and food such as liver mush,” Emily explains. “Agriculture was a foundation of the community, as was making the most out of what you raised. Before ‘snout to tail’ was a ‘thing’ in today’s foodie world, people were already doing that.”
Families worked hard, so music became a part of the culture to not only pass the time but to celebrate together. Before radio, playing stringed instruments and pump organs provided the party.
Emily notes that Earl Scruggs grew up on a cotton farm nearby. He and his family played music to pass the time.
“Earl would also play on his breaks at the Lily Mill,” she adds. “He and some other workers would sit outside and play until it was time to go back to work.”
At the festival, organizers bring in musicians that reflect the traditional music roots of the region to showcase on stage. Roving musicians also walk the streets during the festival, providing impromptu concerts to visitors, especially helpful in passing the time for those standing in line waiting to purchase a $2 liver mush sandwich from vendors such as Mack’s Liver Mush and Meat Co. In 2022, Mack’s sold more than 6,500 sandwiches.
Another big draw? The third part of the “Mush, Music and Mutts” tagline used by the festival: a pet parade and costume contest. Owners line up awaiting their turn to show off their dogs dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, astronauts, Disney icons, and every other permeation of costumes normally reserved for children at Halloween.
After more than 30 years, the festival continues to grow. According to Emily Epley, the festival will add more kid and family activities, including partnering with the City of Shelby for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to the Carolina Harmony Trail, which runs along First Broad River into uptown Shelby. The trail passes along the festival zone and the soon-to-open New Harmony Trail Boardwalk Shops.
The festival is free and of course, pets are welcome. Open your tastebuds to something different, grab a liver mush sandwich, listen to some music and enjoy the costume ingenuity from parents of both children and dogs!
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