by Leanne E. Smith
At the Grocery Basket & Grill in Ferguson, North Carolina, Labor Day Monday is Livermush Monday. On the day after the Happy Valley Fiddler’s Convention, Livermush Monday is a somewhat new music gathering celebrating an older foodways tradition and the longtime local eatery. Traveling from the festival towards Wilkesboro, the first left after the parking lot shared by the Ferguson Fire Department and the post office is Champion Road. That’s the turn. It’s just south of where 268 crosses the Yadkin River, about fifteen miles southeast of Wilkesboro. The Grocery Basket is less than 200 yards off of Highway 268. Parking is a free-for-all—perhaps in the lot, but more likely somewhere along the road.
The area is called Happy Valley, which is, really, a place. The 20-mile stretch of Highway 268 crossing Caldwell and Wilkes counties follows the Yadkin River through the valley. One of North Carolina’s cultural trails, it attracts visitors to the Chapel of Rest, Fort Defiance, Todd’s Country Store, and the Whippoorwill Academy and Village, which includes a replica of a cabin Daniel Boone lived in for a while in the area. Happy Valley is also the locale of the not-so-happy events that became famous in the song “Tom Dooley.”
In a pasture about halfway between Patterson and Wilkesboro is a grave long believed to be that of Laura Foster, for whose murder Tom Dula was executed. That pasture is where the 11-year-old Happy Valley Fiddler’s Convention is held. The convention is a time when the Foster grave is easily accessible to the public. Part of the 2015 convention’s programming even included Bobby McMillon (1995 Brown-Hudson Folklore Award recipient) discussing the Tom Dula story and singing songs to an audience gathered on the grass near Laura Foster’s grave. Now included in the line of history, there’s Livermush Monday.
The queen of Livermush Monday is Margie Roberts—and she has help from her daughter, Susan Roberts, and from Susan’s daughter, Margo Foster. Margie’s brother-in-law used to operate the Grocery Basket, but for about thirty years, it’s been Margie’s place. In January of 2015, Susan started working there full time, too. On weekends, Margo’s son Austin adds a fourth generation to the grill’s staff. He’s a few years too young to be officially employed there, but he gets to spend time with his grandmother Susan and great-grandmother Margie. And for the people he knows, he’ll sometimes collect their orders and deliver their food.
Livermush is on the Grocery Basket’s regular menu, so it’s available pretty much all of the time. Susan said the place is “normally busy, but not with the music.” So, for anyone who wants to go when there’s a crowd to mingle with and some music to be heard, Livermush Monday is the day to go. Some of the musicians who have been camping at the fiddler’s convention for the weekend will stay over on Sunday night for a few more hours of jamming. In the morning, the lingering campers wind six miles towards Wilkesboro to the Grocery Basket for brunch and one more old-time music session before they return home.
That’s how the event started with musician friends Rich Hartness, Brian Schmiel, and another who goes by the name Fiddlin’ Wolf, along with Texan visitors Dan and Christy Foster. (Dan’s branch of the Fosters moved from Happy Valley to Texas in the nineteenth century.) Tony Jones, who owns the farm where the fiddler’s convention is held, took the group on a tour of the area. Rich remembers, “Margie’s place was where we started as it was a good source for breakfast and a strong taste of local flavor. Margie and Susan were very welcoming of us strangers floating in there with Tony. He’s a regular patron. Livermush stood out on the menu. We all had to give it a try as it was not part of our regular diet.”
When the group arrived around 9:30 a.m. for that first visit several years ago, most of the local breakfast crowd had left. Rich says, “While Margie was cooking up our grub, we decided to give her a little taste of music since she didn’t make it to the fiddler’s convention. All five of us played. We were all very moved and grateful for the kind hospitality and welcoming that Margie and Susan shared with us that day. We had such a good time in there that morning that we had to do it again the following year.” They did, and they started calling the gathering Livermush Monday because that name was “so unlikely and curious and disgusting to some that it was too good not to adopt.”
Then, “Others heard about the fun we were having so by the third year, lots more folks showed up, and then it just got bigger and bigger.” Now there’s even a raffle for a quilt that Margie and Susan machine-pieced and hand-quilted. Each year, one of the squares is commemoratively embroidered with the year and “Livermush Monday.” Some of the Livermush Monday attendees are longtime locals looking for good food. Some are newer residents who are trying to support the fiddler’s convention and the livermush event as connections to local history and culture. But they’re all enjoying the same sentiments Rich recalls among the first small group of musicians: “all happy to be in Happy Valley together, soaking up the warm hospitality.” That’s why some people describe Happy Valley as a state of mind.
A little of everything for a Livermush Monday breakfast will be a couple of slices of livermush, cooked by request from light to crispy; grits; eggs, scrambled or fried; and a biscuit opened and smothered in gravy. At the 2015 event, several people ate jam with theirs, and the fresh grape tomatoes on the table added a tasty acidic contrast to the richness of the livermush. The liver-ness of livermush is much more subtle than fried chicken livers. The flavor is somewhat sausage-like because of the seasoning. Texture-wise, whereas liver pudding is smooth, livermush is slightly more grainy from the cornmeal that’s added as filler. If it’s lightly cooked, it’s spreadable. People who prefer sausage well browned would likely rather have their livermush cooked a little bit crispy, too.
After livermush for breakfast, anyone still hanging around by lunchtime can have more of the same, or order something else from the grill: cheeseburgers, hamburgers, barbecue, fish, hot dogs, chicken, BLT, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburger steak, barbecue and chicken plates, fries, cheese fries, chili cheese fries, onion rings, egg salad, and more—or just have ice cream.
For some people, Livermush Monday prompts childhood memories. Local guitarist Gary Saunders recalled how his mother would cook livermush until it was crispy and serve it with Karo syrup. Emphasizing the local importance, he said, “Everybody around here who’s got a pig makes livermush.” For people without their own pigs, the town of Shelby hosts two livermush companies: Mack’s and Jenkins. The Grocery Basket is a longtime Jenkins establishment. In 2014, the Jenkins company sponsored the day with a donation of 50 pounds of livermush.
By 1 p.m. at the 2015 event, with several business hours left to go, Margie, Susan, and Margo had sold four five-pound loaves of livermush—twenty pounds, one half-inch slice at a time. Not everyone will be a repeat livermush consumer, but it’s certainly worth sampling, especially on Livermush Monday when the customers’ experience is as Margie describes her own day cooking and socializing: “I enjoy every minute of it.”