"Twenty-five percent of the general population won't even taste liver mush," sighs Hunter, 59, who - along with his three sisters - inherited ownership of Hunter's Livermush in Marion. "That hurts. Myself, I can't see anything wrong with liver. I'll order a liver and onions now and then."
These aren't easy times for a livermush man. Growing skepticism about offal, newfangled farming and changing economic conditions have conspired to undermine the simple livermush sandwich's once magisterial reign in the rural sliver of North Carolina that runs between the state's mountain and piedmont regions.
"We're still running a fairly good volume, but a whole lot of us wish we could see better times," Hunter says of the area devastated by factory closings throughout the 1990s. "It's not just livermush. All of us is struggling to stay in existence."
For years, livermush was one of those products that the public didn't need to be reminded to buy. Like flour and light bulbs, the "poor man's pate" invariably found its way into housewives' shopping carts without any prettily-worded nudging from the Livermush Council. Livermushers confidently skipped Shelby's annual Livermush Festival, which nearly petered out without their participation. But the state's five commercial livermush makers have lately acknowledged their product could use some "public relations," Hunter says.
To help generate positive publicity for livermush, Hunter has agreed to haul out his grill for the second annual Livermush Festival in Marion on June 6. While the 2007 edition of the event was fairly restrained, this year's schedule includes a livermush cook-off, livermush haiku contest and livermush toss. "We're looking to have a lot of fun with livermush," says Freddie Killough, director of the sponsoring Marion Downtown Business Association.
Hunter will be giving away his livermush sandwiches for free.
"I don't have no sons," Hunter says. "If I give a livermush biscuit to a little boy, he'll remember Mr. Hunter forever because he gave him a free livermush sandwich. He'll never forget that he came with his momma and daddy, and his momma and daddy didn't have no money, and Mr. Hunter gave him a sandwich."
Livermush's popularity has always swung in indirect proportion to North Carolina's economic fortunes. It arrived in North Carolina via the Great Wagon Road, which German farmers in search of land followed from Pennsylvania. The farmers brought with them recipes for scrapple, a hodgepodge of mixed-up hog scraps and flour. Once in the South, where corn was the favored crop, they pioneered a related dish of discarded pig livers, skins, snouts and cornmeal called livermush.
(Livermush, by the way, isn't liver pudding, which holds sway east of the Yadkin River line. On that point, devotees are clear. Exactly what distinguishes mush from pudding tastewise is a somewhat murkier issue, although some experts claim the occasional use of rice or cereal as a binder in pudding means it's not mush.)
Hunter's parents parlayed a family recipe for livermush into a business in the 1950s, when, as Hunter puts it: "You could go into selling and you didn't have no regulations on you. You didn't have to jump so many hoops. Now you get inspected this, inspected that. Nobody trusts anybody to put a clean product on the market."
Hunter's father died in March, more than a decade after putting his children in charge of his company, which still turns out upward of 20,000 pounds of livermush each week. Hunter has tried to stick to the same recipe his parents used, but has had to make a few adjustments to account for changes in hog processing.
"Used to they hung up the animal, let the heat get out of it," says Hunter, referring to the traditional slaughterhouse practice of allowing a freshly killed hog to cool on a hook. "Now they pack everything hot; put in the liver, put on some ice, put in the liver, put in another layer of ice. In my personal opinion, that hurts the meat."
The Hunters have also modified their seasonings to accommodate different breeds of corn: "They're fixing all the corn to sell for gasohol," Hunter says. "It's got more moisture than we want."
Livermush is fatty, high in cholesterol and its coarse, earthy flavors don't always agree with refined palates. But Hunter says none of those things spelled as much trouble for the livermush industry as break room vending machines, food stamps -- which render a range of foods as affordable as livermush -- and credit cards.
"Until about 1992, all groceries were cash," Hunter recalls bitterly. "Let's say you had $60, that's what you had to spend." Nowadays, Hunter says, shoppers armed with high-max Mastercards are as likely to buy T-bones as livermush.
"But what's hurt us more than anything is the mills closing," Hunter says. "They're not taking livermush to work with them."
The demise of the textile industry devastated livermush because the dish is a micro-regional specialty. Beyond the boundaries of Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell and Burke Counties - "we may be in a few stores here, there and yonder, but that's the four counties we have," Hunter says - livermush is considered as exotic (and unappetizing) as monkey brains.
"We do not come to Buncombe County, OK?," Hunter says. "Buncombe County is hamburger country. We came there around 40 years ago and we didn't do too well."
Why? Beats Hunter. After fifty years of eating livermush, he still enjoys it "fried golden crisp, with two eggs over easy and gravy poured atop it." Chefs closer to Charlotte, where the dish hasn't suffered quite so gravely as it has in northern livermush country, have experimented with spreading the stuff on pizzas and folding it into omelets. Killough said one prospective cookoff entrant "called and said he was going to make livermush lasagna." "I've heard several recipes," Hunter says. "One little boy come up to me and he says 'Mr. Hunter, you ever put you some peanut butter on your livermush? I said 'No son, I haven't gotten around to that yet'."
Chuckling, he adds: "Maybe at the festival."
The Livermush Festival is scheduled for Friday, June 6, from 6:30 p.m.- to 9:30 p.m. on Marion's Main Street. Livermush costumes are encouraged (really.) Cook-off entries must contain livermush and be submitted in a 8x8-inch disposable pan. All dishes must be delivered by 6:15 p.m.