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Shelby's livermush festival adapts to COVID for the 2nd year in a row

An attendee chows down on a livermush sandwich at a previous Liver Mush Festival in Shelby. This year's festival is going virtual for the second time in a row because of COVID-19.
An attendee chows down on a livermush sandwich at a previous Liver Mush Festival in Shelby. This year's festival is going virtual for the second time in a row because of COVID-19.

October’s a prime month for festivals in North Carolina. And Shelby, about 45 miles west of Charlotte, knows how to throw a party. There’s music in the streets, a pageant on the stage and slices of livermush sizzling on the grill as thousands of people celebrate a regional delicacy. Well, normally, anyway.

For the second year in a row, North Carolina’s official livermush festival, set for Oct. 16, has been mostly called off because of COVID-19. But the 36-year-old festival is carrying on digitally.

“It’s become such a tradition for so many people,” said Emily Epley, Cleveland County’s travel and tourism director. “And then there are so many others that hear about it for the first time and are excited to come, and when they’ve heard it’s been canceled, they express such disappointment about it. So we just thought, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to keep some kind of positive energy and fun going around it.’”

Livermush is a regional staple, made with at least 30% pig liver and often fried as a breakfast protein or put in sandwiches. In recent years, it’s gotten some national exposure, featured by Andrew Zimmern on his “Bizarre Foods” show and in a Southern Living article, among other publications.

And it’s a big deal in Cleveland County, home to Mack’s Liver Mush and Meat Co. and Jenkins Foods. The two companies, Our State magazine reported, sell nearly 40,000 pounds of livermush combined on a weekly basis.

Ron McKee, the third-generation owner of Mack’s, says it’s a versatile food.

“(I like it) with just eggs as a breakfast meat, I like it on hamburger buns with chili and mustard — just any way. I like it just fried good and crunchy with some grape jelly on it,” McKee said. “That gives you breakfast, dinner and dessert.”

McKee’s father started the annual Liver Mush Festival back in 1985, and it’s been held almost every year since. It’s changed formats and locations over the years. There’s usually a focus on live music — after all, Cleveland County was the birthplace of Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson. There’s a Little Miss Liver Mush Pageant and, naturally, a livermush-eating contest.

In 2019, about 16,000 people attended, Epley said.

“It’s a full day in uptown Shelby around the very beautiful, very walkable Court Square, where you have the festival on four sides of the square,” Epley said. “There’s the Foothills Farmers market and then there’s all kinds of really great local shops and restaurants.”

Crowds that size were just too risky in 2020, Epley said. But things were looking up in 2021, until the delta variant caused a spike in coronavirus infections across North Carolina. So once again, the festival — officially called Mush, Music and Mutts — was moved online. Some aspects were completely called off, like the musical performances.

“We chose not to do that virtually because we felt like you just don’t have the same effect when you are doing music over a Facebook feed, and we really want our musicians to be showcased in the best way,” Epley said.

But organizers got creative about some other festival traditions. The pet costume contest was tweaked to let people submit photos, for example. There’s a virtual marketplace for vendors. And instead of a livermush-eating contest, there’s a cooking contest in which people submit videos of themselves making meals with livermush.

McKee says that’s kind of nice. Normally during the festival, he’s too busy cooking and serving livermush biscuits to sit back and watch the big events like the livermush-eating contest.

“I think the last time we actually did a live festival, we sold around 7 or 8,000 that day … so I'm back there working, working, working,” McKee said. “Last year, I really got involved with the online thing and watched all the videos that people put in and I really enjoyed that.”

One of the winning videos last year featured a mother singing as she prepared a livermush breakfast with the help of her children. Entries submitted this year include someone making livermush baked potatoes, livermush fried rice and classic livermush sandwiches as prepared by a 10-year-old who says she’s not allowed to use the stove yet.

Epley says some virtual aspects of the festival will likely return next year, but organizers are hoping for the real deal in 2022. One thing McKee likes about the in-person version is just introducing people who’ve never tried livermush to the product.

“We had a guy who showed up two or three years ago and said, ‘I had it here five years ago and now I eat at least one to three pounds a week,’” McKee said. “I mean, he just loved it. And you lose that aspect of the one-on-one.”

So in 2022, McKee said, expect a good show:

“I think we're going to surprise people and have a lot of new stuff going on and try to make it bigger than it's ever been before.”

There's more information about the Mush, Music and Mutts Festival on Cleveland County’s tourism website and on the event’s Facebook page. That’s also where you can watch — and submit, if you’re so inclined — livermush-cooking videos and livermush pet costume photos. Winners are announced Saturday, which would have been the date of the in-person festival. 

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Dash joined WFAE as a digital editor for news and engagement in 2019. Before that, he was a reporter for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia and the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia.