From the abundance of restaurants on every corner to our tendency to center every holiday or event around food and coordinate gatherings around mealtimes, it’s no secret that Americans love food. Classic American food, such as cheeseburgers and apple pie, are staples in many restaurants and households across the country. Barbecue and hot wing festivals, chili cook-offs, and hot dog eating contests are common events. What is unusual, however, are foods that aren’t so common that are commemorated with stand-alone festivals, like livermush, mushrooms, garlic, MoonPies, and even things you might not think of as edible like insects and roadkill. Below, we dive into the world of North Carolina’s livermush obsession and look at more of the strangest food festivals across America.
North Carolina’s Livermush
North Carolina’s favorite pan-fried food, livermush, is a regional dish that originated in the state’s Appalachian foothills and the piedmont region in the middle of the state. The regional delicacy isn’t often heard of in other states or even in other parts of its home state.
Livermush is made with pig liver, the fatty parts of its head, and cornmeal, combined with sage and black pepper. The pig’s head is boiled, then the meat is pulled off and ground with the liver, cornmeal, and spices. That mixture is packed into loaves that are set by chilling or baking, depending on the recipe. The final product is sliced and either deep or pan fried to make the outside crispy while keeping the inside soft. While frying the slices is most common, they can also be grilled.
Livermush is likely the legacy of German immigrants who settled in Western North Carolina after spreading similar combinations of pork scraps and binders up and down the East Coast. It gained particular popularity during the Great Depression with families that needed to stretch their resources and use more of their hogs, including cheaper parts like liver and head meat.
Most commonly served with biscuits, scrambled in omelets, and on pizzas, many people describe livermush as tasting similar to a fine-ground country sausage. It is also served on sandwiches, with heated debate raging in the livermush-eating region over whether it should be accompanied by typical sandwich condiments like mustard or mayonnaise, or the more unusual options of grape jelly or maple syrup. Served “all the way,” it’s typically topped with onion, chili, and mustard.
Livermush is such a big part of North Carolina’s culture that the folks there have not only one, but two festivals devoted to their favorite fried meat. In 2012, state lawmakers passed a bill to designate two official livermush festivals, one in the fall and the other in spring.
Official Fall Livermush Festival
Since 1987, people have been celebrating this economical and versatile meat in the piedmont town of Shelby, N.C., with a community-wide festival that now reaches people across the country and has sparked national media attention. We spoke to Jackie Sibley-Newton, vice president of tourism for the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce, to learn more about the festival that attracts more than 16,000 people each October.
Officially dubbed Mush, Music, and Mutts, the festival is sponsored by three producers of the pork pate – Mack’s Liver Mush & Meat Co., Jenkins Foods, and Frank Corriher Beef and Sausage – that provide and serve meat for the event. Festival-goers have the opportunity to try many variations of livermush, as a local sushi restaurant serves sushi rolls made with it and restaurants around the court square where the festival is held serve a variety of dishes including livermush burgers and livermush pizza.
Along with livermush-eating and recipe contests, the festival offers live music, a parade, the Little Miss Liver Mush Pageant, and more than 130 local vendors selling produce, meats, and other locally-made products. The Kids Zone offers pumpkin painting, crafts, games, and inflatables, which are all free, and the Pet Zone features pet games, a costume contest, and a police K-9 demonstration.
The folks at Mack’s Liver Mush started the festival in 1987. It took a hiatus in the early 2000s, but when Jackie Sibley-Newton came to the chamber, she began receiving numerous calls and requests to revive it.
“We organized the new livermush festival in 2007. It was held on a single block of Washington Street in Uptown Shelby with about 10 vendors, and hosted 2,000 attendees,” recalls Sibley-Newton.
Over the years, with the help publicity generated by its uniqueness, including
According to Sibley-Newton, the festival “serves as an invitation for others to learn more about who we are and where we come from. Livermush is so unique to this region of North Carolina that we feel a need to celebrate it. It is a staple in households and served in school cafeterias and local restaurants. It’s part of the heritage and culture of our people. This festival allows us the opportunity to share a favorite comfort food with the world outside of this region where it is popular.”
To many people outside of the western side of North Carolina, the idea of eating something called livermush might evoke feelings of intrigue or uncertainty.
“To be honest, we couldn’t take two more gross words and name a food product, but I think that is what makes livermush so quirky,” says Sibley-Newton. “It sounds strange to those outside the region and that is why it is intriguing to have a festival celebrating a pork product. This event gives people from other places an opportunity to try something new and see what fun our small community is.”
People travel from all over the country to experience the festival.
“We have a group from Colorado that comes every year since seeing it on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” says Sibley-Newton.
In Shelby, livermush is widely available in grocery stores, convenience stores, and most restaurants. During the weekend of the festival, restaurants in the Uptown Shelby area feature livermush specials.
“Livermush is not a novelty for Cleveland County. It is a staple,” Sibley-Newton says.
The next Mush, Music, and Mutts is scheduled for Oct. 20, 2018.
Official Spring Livermush Festival
About an hour away in the foothills town of Marion, N.C., the state’s Official Spring Livermush Festival just marked its 11th year. The first festival coincided with the 50th anniversary of major sponsor Hunter’s Livermush. Throughout its history, the event has grown, now offering upwards of 50 vendors and hosting more than 5,000 attendees. This event offers free sandwiches packed with locally made livermush, hog calling and livermush eating contests, live music, and children’s activities.
Freddie Killough, a representative of the Marion Business Association that plans and executes the Liver Mush Festival and other community events, spoke of livermush’s place in the local culture.
“Livermush is unique. It’s a food that all socio-economic classes appreciate. It speaks of the heritage of the area in which folks utilized every part of the hog when it was butchered,” Killough says. “The common saying is, ‘They used everything but the squeal.'”
Killough says the festival has been a positive addition to the community of Marion.
“The impact has been a sense of pride for something that is locally made and has been taken for granted in the past,” he explains.
The next Marion Liver Mush Festival is scheduled for June 2, 2018.
Experience Eccentric Food Festivals
If exploring unconventional food festivals interests you, add these peculiar possibilities to your bucket list.
- Waikiki Spam Jam: This festival, held in Honolulu, celebrates Hawaiians’ love for Spam®, a canned meat produced by Hormel Foods. The people of Hawaii love Spam so much that they consume nearly seven million cans every year– more per person than any other state in the U.S. An annual tradition that draws crowds upwards of 25,000 people, Spam Jam benefits the Hawaii Foodbank, a non-profit organization that feeds the needy. Next festival: April 28, 2018.
- Potato Days Festival: This annual event spans two days and offers tons of potato-related activities for the whole family. Located in Barnesville, Minn., the Potato Days Festival was named one of the “9 Strangest Food Festivals Around the World” by Wanderlust Travel Magazine, and for good reason: Along with the potato scavenger hunt, mashed potato eating contest, and the potato sack fashion show, one of the featured competitions is wrestling in a mashed potato pit. Next festival: Aug. 24-25, 2018.
- Gilroy Garlic Festival: Lovers of the pungent-flavored bulbs gather annually in Gilroy, Calif., for three days of unique garlicky food, arts and crafts, live entertainment, and cooking competitions. The main attraction of this festival is Gourmet Alley, a giant outdoor kitchen where Pyro Chefs perform open-flame shows while preparing garlic-laced dishes like Gilroy garlic shrimp and zesty garlic calamari. This summer food festival is unlike any other; where else can you get garlic ice cream? Next festival: July 27-29, 2018.
- BugFest: Each year, more than 35,000 people attend BugFest in Raleigh, N.C. At the center of BugFest is Café Insecta, where attendees learn about entomophagy– the practice of eating bugs. The brave have the opportunity to sample insect-based dishes prepared by local chefs, such as cricket stir fry, Mongolian mealworms, and nacho grasshoppers. If you’re not keen on this idea, there are about 100 other activities to enjoy, from interesting shows and exhibits to educational crafts and games. Next festival: Sept. 15, 2018.
- Giant Omelette Celebration: Held in Abbeville, La., this festival boasts the making of giant omelettes as its main attraction. Filmed by numerous television programs, a giant omelette is made with more than 5,000 eggs and has a diameter greater than 12 feet. Alongside, junior chefs make a children’s omelette from 600 eggs. The prepared omelettes are served with a side of French bread from a local bakery. Other activities include egg cracking and egg toss competitions, arts and crafts, live music, and a parade. Next festival: Nov. 3-4, 2018.
- RC-Moon Pie Festival: A wacky festival celebrating what they claim as “the South’s original fast food,” the RC-Moon Pie Festival is held annually for thousands to enjoy a 10-mile race, food, live music, games, a parade, and the cutting of the World’s Largest Moon Pie. This festival began in 1994 as a way for the small community of Bell Buckle, Tenn., to increase tourism and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Moon Pie. The event has been featured in Southern Living and Food Network Magazine, and on the Travel Channel, to name a few. Next festival: June 16, 2018.
- Mattoon Bagelfest: This festival got its start in 1986 when a local bagel company hosted a free bagel breakfast for the community of Mattoon, Ill. Now, it’s grown to be a five-day festival dedicated to celebrating this delightful breakfast food, offering events such as the Baby Bagel and Miss BagelFest Contests, concerts, a carnival, the BagelFest parade, and tens of thousands of bagels with all the toppings. Next festival: July 17-21, 2018.
- Yale Bologna Festival: A tradition since 1989, this annual festival attracts crowds topping 20,000 to the quaint community of Yale, Mich. Over the span of three days, festival-goers celebrate their love for the classic sliced lunch meat with activities such as an outhouse race, bologna ring toss, cardboard boat race, bologna royalty contests, and golf cart and bicycle parades. Fireworks round out this family-friendly event to celebrate Cecil Roy, the founder of a local family-owned company that has been processing meat for more than 100 years. Next festival: July 26-29, 2018.
- Kool-Aid Days: Now in its 20th year, this event celebrates the invention of Kool-Aid by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Neb. The event has grown from 5,000 people in 1998 to more than 30,000 who participate in this three-day event with activities that spread across multiple venues around the town to pay tribute to the official soft drink of Nebraska. In addition to enjoying concerts, playing games, and shopping from local vendors, you can race Kool-Aid jammer boats, compete in the Kool-Aid drinking contest, and sample the 16 flavors of the sugary sweet drink. Next festival: August 2018.
- Humongous Fungus Fest: Home to the world’s largest and oldest living organism, locals and tourists alike in Crystal Falls, Mich., commemorate this fungus every August with a festival dedicated to the gigantic mushroom. This three-day event features activities all over the area, from parks, restaurants, and churches, to parking lots across the city, and includes a parade, eating contests, live music, street dances, and cook-offs. The main event is the preparation and eating of the Humongous Pizza, the largest mushroom pizza in the world, a 10-foot square. A new aspect of Fungus Fest this past year was the Mr. Fungi “Beard”y Pageant, where male attendees compete in contests of Yooper attire (formal, swimwear, hunting, etc.), funny Q&A, and a talent portion to win the title of Mr. Fungi. Next festival: August 2018.