“If barbecue is like cocaine, hash is like crack,” says chef Elliot Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, North Carolina.
Moss, who grew up in Florence, South Carolina, was trying to explain the appeal of this uniquely South Carolina side dish, and he was telling a story about an old man who ate it over grits. That man had to have his hash, and explained it to Moss using that same analogy.
Moss collects stories about hash. He also collects little cups of the stuff on occasional road trips through South Carolina. He’s been known to try 14 different hashes at 14 different joints throughout the state on a two-day tour. But as for the appeal of hash? Well, sometimes it’s an acquired taste, he explains. “The hash they had at lots of places in Florence when I was growing up was loose and runny. It was like taco meat that tasted kind of like breakfast sausage with a lot of sage — real iron-y from all the liver. But when I moved away, I realized how many types of hash there were, and I started getting really into it. I developed a hash palate.”
So what is hash? Well, first, it seems to be a very colloquial South Carolina product. Although Moss serves it at his restaurant in Asheville, he’s a transplant from the Palmetto State, and the same goes for a place that serves it in Savannah, Georgia. Cross the state line to either of those locales, and you’re much more likely to find Brunswick Stew as a side to your ’cue.
Secondly, its ingredient variations are very individual to regions of the state, cities, and restaurants themselves, but all include some kind of offal. David Bessinger (not associated with that Bessigner), owner of Melvin’s Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, says that his dad “had been making the basic recipe since the 1930s. We make it every two weeks, and when I started making it, I wanted to bring it back to the way they did it in the colonial days, even though in the ’70s, my dad wasn’t sure that people would eat if if they knew what was in it, so we got away from that. I brought that back.”
Bessinger’s current “colonial” recipe includes pig hearts, livers and kidneys, jowls, brisket, hams, beef shoulders, and a hog’s head, and then a variety of veggies including celery, carrots, corn, and potatoes, all layered with black pepper and salt by a woman named Michelle in a huge freestanding stainless steel pot in the back storeroom of the restaurant. It’s hot work, and it starts high, then switches to low and slow. The next day, they take all of that, remove the bones, and then run what remains through a grinder. Melvin’s mixes the ground mixture with their signature yellow mustard–based barbecue sauce and other ingredients, and it goes back into the pot so the flavors can all meld together.
And then, just like almost all the other hash in South Carolina, it’s served over rice.
Rice is the traditional South Carolina starch, the grain that built the enormous wealth of Charleston, and it still is served in South Carolina much more than potatoes.
“We call it hash and rice,” says Bessinger. “We always brought hash and rice to the family reunion. It’s always white rice, and when I started going to sushi restaurants, I realized that they kept their rice better than we could ours. So I went to Berlin’s [Restaurant Supply] and ordered an Asian rice cooker, and that’s what we’ve been using here at the restaurant ever since.”
Some in the Lowcountry swear by the hash at Melvin’s, others covet the hash and rice at Sweatman’s BBQ in Holly Hill, while still other people can’t live without the hash at Duke’s Bar-B-Que in Orangeburg for its lighter consistency, more akin to mashed potatoes. Whatever your hash preference, there’s no doubt that the hash tradition grew out of the notion of utilizing the whole animal, though the oft-repeated story of slave subsistence is a complicated one, as Hanna Raskin wrote recently in The Post and Courier.
Still, color lines blur when it comes to hash. In fact, it’s not really a discussion. Economy is. That’s exactly why Moss is currently making it in his restaurant. He starts with whole hogs, including the head, for about half of the hogs he buys. “We use pasture-raised heritage hogs, and they are fatty hogs. There is a lot of fat left over after barbecuing, but there’s still bits of good meat in there,” which, as a responsible restaurant owner, he needs to respect for his bottom line, he explains.
“We render down the fat, and basically confit these little bits of meat, which we call hash bits,” says Moss. “We make stock from the bones, which we save, and we freeze the offal. Then we boil down the head. All of that goes into the hash, along with mustard, ketchup, and our vinegar sauce. At this point we have the system down since we’ve been open for nine months. Each batch of hash includes meat that has literally been cooked for three days.”
Moss’s hash is labor intensive, just like Melvin’s or any other countless processes over steel pots all over the state. It’s about using up the nasty bits, about transforming them into something not only edible but also delectable. And it’s not just about tradition for tradition’s sake; it’s still all about the hash and rice.
“I judge the worth of a barbecue joint based on the quality of its hash,” says Charleston resident Christina Cummings.
For Moss and Bessinger, hash is still a current menu item, one in which they take great pride. And when chefs talk, they often eat, so hash might just be the next hot thing to hit your restaurant table.
Says Moss, “I might be more proud of my hash because it’s a labor of love, but I take it to all my chef buddies when I visit them.”