This summer, CNN's Defining America project will be traveling the country with the CNN Express bus to explore the stories behind the data and demographics that show how places are changing. This week, CNN brings you coverage from North Carolina.
There was a time when every North Carolina family loved – or at least knew – liver mush. It's the cuisine of grandma's house, snow days and simpler times, a local delicacy some natives defend with the same loyalty they have to Carolina barbecue and Cheerwine.
Back then, it was the economical way to get some meat in your diet when times were tough, a high-iron addition to a kid's lunch, or a fried-till-crispy comfort breakfast beside fat slices of tomato and muskmelon.
But North Carolina is a different place now. In the last decade, it was one of the fastest-growing states, one suddenly populated by retirees who headed south for mild weather and pretty beaches, students gunning for tech jobs and bankers in search of good schools and big yards.
But still, you'll find it on grocery store shelves in North Carolina, parts of South Carolina and Virginia. When CNN's Defining America project stopped in North Carolina, we checked in with the Neese family, makers and purveyors of country sausage and liver mush since 1917.
Oh, there have been shifts and additions over the years. Early on, chief executive Tom Neese explained, the family sold its product as liver pudding, but buyers west of the Yadkin River called it liver mush. It was all the same thing, but with different names on local menus. Now it's two products, liver pudding the smoother cold cut, while liver mush is a little drier.
And then there's scrapple. It's similar, but even coarser than liver mush, and less likely to be sliced, fried and served on a piece of toast like its brick-meat brethren. It's a relative newcomer to their lineup, added just a couple decades ago. The family scrapped recipe after recipe before landing on one that seemed to get it right.
See, scrapple isn't their specialty. It isn't a North Carolina staple; it's more like a business decision best enjoyed with scrambled eggs.
"We had so many northerners coming down here, we decided to produce scrapple," Andrea Neese said.
But getting liver pudding or mush into the mouths of a new generation is a struggle, the Neeses admit.
"The problem," Tom Neese said, "is the word 'liver.'"
No kid wants to eat liver. The word "mush" probably isn't doing them any favors either, they admitted. Toss the word "pudding" around, and you're just going to leave a bunch of kids disappointed.
They've talked about an advertising campaign to ask people what dolled up name they'd give it, but they're skeptical of change, whether it's the name or the packaging. The recipes are untouchable.
"You make one change, and it's a bad change, and they'll know it," Tom Neese said.
But there's hope for this old fashioned North Carolina dish.
If you hit a Greensboro Grasshoppers duke it out with the Hagerstown Suns or any other South Atlantic League baseball team this summer, you'll see packages of Neese's sausage racing around the bases between innings.
It still draws a crowd at the North Carolina State Fair, where people will show up with slices of bread and a request for a plus-sized sample. Mail-order sales have gone to homesick liver mush fans all over the country. Sales spike every holiday season, and when there's snow in the weather forecast, a sign that comfort food reigns when people are coming home, or stuck at home.
Retailers like that the Neeses themselves answer the phones and that Neese company trucks still make deliveries.
"If a store calls and is out of product, within six to eight hours, we have the ability to get that product to them," co-president Tommy Neese said. "We still want to have that personal touch."
The Neeses said they know all their employees names. Andrea and Tommy are the fourth generation in the business. Tom Neese is 77 and insists he's on the way out – but he keeps showing up to work. I talked with outside their red brick building in Greensboro, in a trailer they said they're making into Tom's office, if they can ever pry him away from the phones.
At least one in the next generation is a vegetarian – her family members call it "a phase" – but some are already working summers with them in Greensboro, or in the harvesting plant.
"Our father has 11 grandchildren," Andrea Neese said. "Somebody will make the decision to come."
Liver mush, after all, has always been a family affair.
Editor's note: As it happens, our Managing Editor has Neese's liver mush, liver pudding, souse and C-loaf in her fridge at this very moment. She mentions this at every possible opportunity she has.
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