Though widely considered synonymous with smoked whole hog, South Carolina barbecue is a time-honored experience, one that can't be defined by a single ingredient, sauce or cooking technique. In these parts, digging into a mound of hash-slathered rice while you enjoy your pork is an important part of that experience. (And we don't mean hash as in "corned beef.")
If you're perplexed, you're not alone. Folks as close as North Carolina often admit to complete cluelessness when it comes to this barbecue tradition. Simply put, South Carolina hash is a stewlike concoction of ground meats flavored with vegetables, condiments and spices. It is typically served over rice, though some folks prefer it on a slice of white bread.
Some historians say the origins of hash can be traced to enslaved Africans who devised ways to make tasty dishes out of the undesirable "offal" meats plantation owners wouldn't eat. Other theories point to German settlers in the state who brought with them the tradition of grinding meat for gravy. Then there's the notion that hash was born out of plain old necessity as farmers attempted to use all parts of the animal to feed families and communities during hard times. No matter its roots, hash is now as ingrained in South Carolina culinary culture as shrimp and grits or boiled peanuts.
At one time, dedicated "hash houses" peppered the state. The heaviest concentration was in the Upstate, where they were established by textile mill owners interested in luring farmers to their towns. Not only would the owners hold community "hash-cookings" on special occasions, but they permitted farming families to use the facilities to prepare their own hash. So, what is hash made of and why is it so revered across the Palmetto State? Ask around and you're likely to get a variety of opinions.
Into the Hash Pot
When it comes to cooking hash, just about anything goes - literally. For a lot of folks, a true hash is built on a foundation of pig, from snout to tail to everything in between, with a lot of recipes relying upon liver and other organ meats for pungent flavor. In some barbecue houses, beef is the meat of choice. Others add in chicken or sausage. Ask your server or study the menu for clues about the kind of meat used, though names like "hog head hash" or "liver hash" are pretty strong indicators of what you're about to eat.
Traditionally, large iron pots were used to slowly cook the meat. These days, hefty metal pots are more common. Once the meat is tender, it is cooled and picked. To the meat and broth, cubed potatoes, onion, celery, tomatoes, carrots and even corn might be added. Mustard (thought to be a German influence), ketchup, hot sauce, barbecue sauce and/or vinegar may be used to season the concoction, as well as spices like sage and red pepper. Everything is simmered over low heat until it resembles a thick gruel, substantial enough for ladling over rice or bread.
Hash lovers in South Carolina are a passionate bunch, fiercely defending the superiority of their favorite. The alliances are often drawn down regional lines. In the Midlands, hash is usually a mustard-based pork concoction, while the Lowcountry's preference is pork spiked with a good bit of vinegar to complement the liver-forward flavor. Beef with lots of onion - called "white hash" - is the hash of choice in the Upstate. Still, there's no telling what kind you're likely to find when you visit a barbecue restaurant in South Carolina. If you have a preference, it's always best to call and inquire first.
Making hash is considered an art form in kitchens and restaurants across South Carolina. Oftentimes, preparation is a main event at pig pickings, vying only with the smoking hog for star status. Some cooks have a designated hash pot to sit over the pit; to make it in any other vessel would be to tempt fate. Huddling around a simmering pot of hash is a time for kinship, a social rite where warmth is found through fire, food, fellowship and the following of recipes handed down through generations by masters of hash-craft - those pot-stirring wizards with a knack for turning odds and ends into Southern foodways gold.
Hash curious? Here's a short list of South Carolina restaurants with a reputation for dishing up the tastiest hashes:
True BBQ, West Columbia
Often cited as the best hash in the state, True BBQ's version is reddish, beefy and mustardy. If you don't like liver, this is the one for you.
Midway BBQ, Buffalo
This eatery is the last hash house standing in Union County, which once boasted as many as 50. It has been cooking up its thick, beef-forward hash, flavored with tons of butter and onion, since 1941.
Poogan's Smokehouse, Charleston
A mash-up of pork ribs, sausage and pork butt, Poogan's Smokehouse hash is a thick, meaty gravy. Have it on the side or order the Hash, Belly and Bird - a layered dish of rice, hash and grilled pork belly topped with an egg and pico de gallo.
Sweatman's, Holly Hill
This rousing hash favorite is made from Boston butt and ham, then seasoned with mustard and a secret mix of spices.
Melvin's Barbecue, Charleston
Pork organ meats, jowls, ham, hog head and beef are some of the ingredients that have found their way into Melvin's hash pot since the 1930s. Corn, onion, carrots, potatoes and a healthy dose of their famous mustard-based sauce are also key to this hallmark hash.
Dukes BBQ, Walterboro
Ground pork and lots of potatoes give Dukes' hash a stew-like consistency and flavor, making it the signature side at this popular restaurant.
Roger's BBQ, Florence
The hash is a main draw on the Roger's buffet. If you're looking for a true liver hash, this is your place.
Holden's Ranch, Spartanburg
Get your authentic Upstate beef hash here. Though the chicken stew creates a lot of buzz, Holden's hash is a local favorite and a must-try for newcomers.