At some point in time during the evolution of food marketing, a special niche must’ve developed for people with a knack for naming food. Take a look at any well-done restaurant menu and you’ll see a wealth of rare words put together to dress any particular dish in the most delicious adjectives a linguist can cook up. Over at TGI Friday’s, there’s the “Ultimate Sicilian Chicken Sandwich” and the “California Club.” Le Bernardin’s in New York City offers a full description of each item on the menu, such as the “Poached Halibut and Braised Artichoke Chestnuts in Bacon, Persian Lime-Scented Truffle Broth.” Even fast food gets in on the act, with choices like the “Junior Bacon Cheeseburger” or the “Pacific Shrimp Taco.” Somewhere, I imagine, there’s a man with a large palate and an even larger thesaurus, paid great amounts of money to christen each new culinary creation with a name that’s tastier than a microwaved pretzel with snow-white salt cubes and keen yellow mustard.
But back in time, and in the deep South, years ago, such a man did not exist. Hence, certain dishes have had to stagger through the years saddled with names that sound as appetizing as phrases like “road kill” or “toenail fungus.” Perhaps the biggest victim of this, the not-so-enticing edible with the worst name of all, is the Southern favorite known as “livermush.” There is nothing even remotely mouth-watering about that name. We start with “liver,” a word that brings to mind the image of a bloated and spotted gland sitting in a metal dish and being photographed for a “what drinking does to you” poster. That word is followed by “mush,” which is possibly the only word less appealing than “liver.” Put them together, and one is left with a phrase that seems to function as both a disturbing verb and its apocalyptic aftermath.
Almost two years ago, recently single and searching for meaning in life, I hopped in my car and drove down to Shelby, North Carolina, where the annual Shelby Livermush Exposition was being held. I’d never eaten livermush in my life, but the idea that there was an entire expo being held in its honor intrigued me. Doing some homework beforehand, I learned that livermush is made from pig liver, spare parts from the pig’s head, and cornmeal. It is apparently good with eggs and grits, and is sometimes smothered in grape jelly. In other words, it’s sort of the food equivalent of a Damien Hirst exhibit or a retro-dish inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s strange and horrifying, and as a person of intellect, I was fascinated by it.
Shelby turned out to be a lovely Southern city, filled with the kind of hokey nonsense Northerners think The Nashville Network makes up. The festival was small but colorful, with “I Got Mushed” t-shirts for sale and one livermush grill powered by a John Deer lawnmower engine. The festival flew into high gear with a “husband call,” where old Southern ladies got on a microphone and called their husbands like they were calling a pig. “Soo-eee! Richard get over here! Your dinner is a gettin’ mighty cold! Soo-eee!” This was followed by an enchanting cultural explosion when two white people dressed up like Native Americans got on a stage and sang Indian songs. “Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya!” I later learned that Shelby was once inhabited by Cherokee Indians, long before the white man came, stole their land, and replaced their lovely corn and berries with disgusting livermush.
The question that hung heavy, as I stood in the town square by myself, lonely and confused, quickly became, “Am I really going to eat the livermush?” Since I had driven about two hours, and it was, after all, a livermush festival, it seemed that the deed had to be done. So I went to what I thought looked like the least hygienic grill (if I was going to do it, it had to be done properly) and ordered a heaping portion of livermush, combined with eggs and coated in mustard, wrapped in pita bread. I brought it to the steps of the town hall, where I sat and ate it. I ate it little by little, chewing it thoroughly, sitting in the sun and enjoying a taste that teetered somewhere between greasy sausage and sewage sludge.
I had moved to the South to be with a woman, and here I was alone. No fancy title could re-invent that chapter of my life, not the way one could make a cheap taco sound like a fine dining experience. Some things just are what they are. Like “mush,” as its fans call it. There was an appeal to the South, but by the time that festival was over, I hadn’t spoken to a single person. I wasn’t a part of that appeal; I was someone from the outside looking in. Sitting there on the steps of the Shelby Town Hall, I glanced at my livermush sandwich, almost finished with mustard and grease coming out of it and getting on my fingers. I dropped it on the steps and left. It was interesting in its way. Maybe a part of me would miss it.