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In Defense of the Liverwurst Sandwich

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My mom used to tell me stories about liverwurst sandwiches. She described to me Wonderbread afternoons and tart yellow mustard stains on tube socks and roaming in tricycle gangs through suburban streets. Hers was an era of don’t come home until dinner—she played jacks in driveways and used landlines to call home when she would be late. My grandmother, with a cigarette hanging loosely from her lipsticked mouth, prepared pot roasts and aspics and plum cakes for a raucous family of five. And though I’ve tasted my way through most of my nana’s worn recipe rolodex, when I think of my mother and her childhood spent in a Jewish suburb of Chicago, it’s the taste of her favorite after-school snack that I imagine most.

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A wave of Central and Eastern European immigrants brought liverwurst to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. The sausage, made from the ground livers of pork or calf, was popular in the German Jewish community of my family’s well-to-do town just north of Chicago. My mom and her family called it by the Anglicized name, a take on the German leberwurst. She also calls it liver sausage. To make liverwurst, fat, onions and spices, like black pepper and nutmeg, are added to the ground liver mixture. It is sold in slices or in sausage links; it comes spreadable or firm. Liverwurst can be bought at a specialty store or supermarket—Oscar Mayer makes its own version.

As a kid, I bristled at talk of this mysterious liver sausage. What food would so brazenly proclaim its contents, proudly own up to its existence as a log of ground organ meat? And most of all, what kind of kid would lust for a lunch with liver as its main ingredient? I imagined it: sandwiched between rye, with a smooth swipe of mustard or mayo, a thick slice of liverwurst waits to be eaten. My mom knew her enthusiasm only bred dismay on my part, so she spared me and my school lunches from any trace of her childhood favorite. Its only other echo in my pre-adult life was in the beginning of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Meg Murry, our unassured protagonist’s, mother enjoys a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich.

Recently, I decided to revisit the liverwurst sandwich, to assign taste to the staple of my mother’s childhood. I settled on the Jones Dairy Farm’s Braunschweiger, a pack of sliced liver sausage ideal for sandwich making. Their website recommends creamy liver dips or braunschweiger pop tarts, even a ham and Braunschweiger banh mi. I opted instead to recreate the classic sandwich. My mom tells me that growing up, her fridge was never not stocked with liverwurst slices, an easy, nostalgic staple that her mom, the child of German immigrants, had also grown up eating. My mom took her liverwurst sandwiches on white bread with Miracle Whip spread, but I seek a more modern approach.

My liverwurst approach: bright, lively, sharp.
My liverwurst approach: bright, lively, sharp. Photo by Valerio Farris

Instead, I slice apples and red onion paper thin and lay them in a shallow bath of apple cider vinegar. Together, they marinate and become plump in each other’s sauces. I whisk together curry powder and mayo and spread a healthy dollop across two slices of bread-aisle marble rye. These go wet side down in a hot, dry frying pan until golden and crispy; the bread’s natural swirl peeks through a crunchy glaze. I layer two slices of liverwurst—pink, solid, smooth—the tangy apple-onion slaw, and a few leaves of bitter Swiss chard between the toasted slices. The combination is colorful, in visuals, textures, and tastes. The earthy, fatty base of the liverwurst is brightened by the acidic crunch of the pickled vegetables and unified by the mayo’s heft. And what had always seemed so antiquated, some weird mid-century midwestern snack, feels suddenly revived.

Are you a fan of liverwurst? Did you grow up having it (or hating it) as a kid? Share your stories in the comments.

Tags: (Not) Recipes