Liver pudding and its cousins, liver mush and scrapple, are love-it or hate-it foods.
Helen Oliver knows this from experience. At 85, she has been manning the Neese's Sausage booth at the N.C. State Fair for about 20 years, handing out samples of this old-fashioned country food.
Some folks cry with delight. To them, this taste brings back memories of crisp autumn days when families and neighbors gathered to butcher hogs. The mixture of pig livers and cornmeal cooked in a kettle and molded into loaves was evidence of hard work done and letting nothing go to waste. They enjoyed thick slices fried up with crispy edges and a soft middle with their breakfast eggs or wedged between two slices of white bread with mustard.
"It's delicious," says Warren Alexander, 64, of Elizabeth City, after gobbling up a cube on a cracker at the fair Saturday. "I'm one of the old-timers. I've eaten it all my life."
A few minutes later, a young woman encouraged by the crowd tries a bite. As soon as her lips close, her eyes widen and her expression says: What have I put in my mouth? A friend hands her a napkin, and she discreetly spits out the pudding.
But liver mush has plenty of fans. A Facebook page devoted to liver mush has more than 19,000 followers. North Carolina hosts two annual celebrations: one in Shelby on Saturday and the other in Marion each June. And there's the fair: On the first Saturday, the Neese's booth served 56 pounds of liver pudding and will go through hundreds during the fair's 12-day run.
Liver mush, liver pudding and scrapple are all first cousins, according to Andrea Neese, co-president of Neese's Sausage, a fourth-generation company based in Greensboro. The main difference, Neese explains, is the coarseness of the cornmeal. Liver pudding has the finest grain and scrapple the coarsest. The only other distinctions are that anything with liver in the name has to have 30 percent liver and that liver pudding has very little fat.
Liver fans will like liver mush and its cousins, usually packaged in one-pound blocks and priced at about $2. That price is why it's often called "the poor man's steak." The earthy taste will keep others in the liver-hating camp.
Liver pudding is popular in the eastern part of North Carolina, while liver mush holds sway in the west. Beyond Neese's, there is Pender Packing Co. in Rocky Point, Jenkins Foods Inc. and Mack's Livermush & Meats in Shelby, Hunter's Livermush in Marion and Jamison Livermush Co. in Charlotte. The sandwiches were popular among mill workers in the furniture and textile industries.
'The scrapple diaspora'
Neese's ancestors came down from Berks County, Pa., which doesn't surprise food historian William Woys Weaver, author of "Country Scrapple: An American Tradition." Liver mush is part of the "scrapple diaspora," brought down to North Carolina from Pennsylvania by settlers in the early 18th century, Weaver says. Once here, scrapple, a folk term for a dish called pannas in central Germany, acquired a different name.
"Otherwise, the dish is so similar in concept to what is made in parts of Pennsylvania that it could be sold as scrapple up here," Weaver wrote in e-mail.
Neese's makes all three - liver pudding, liver mush and scrapple, the latter added in the past 20 years when transplanted Northerners complained that liver mush wasn't enough like what they ate back home.
In the late 1970s when Andrea Neese attended Meredith College in Raleigh, she would work the booth at the fair. She recalls the two extremes of reactions to liver pudding or liver mush. Parents would stop their children from reaching up to get a bite, not knowing what it was. But a few people would approach the booth with two slices of bread and ask for a sandwich-size sample with mustard.
One such devotee could be seen Saturday. This older gentleman with white hair and a button-down blue shirt patiently waited in line for samples, snagging three toothpicks of liver pudding before shuffling off to devour his snack.
In one hour, he returned not once or twice, but three more times.
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