Carolina Hash (2008)

Woodward on "Carolina Hash"

While working on the Southern Stews documentary I shot a segment on Carolina hash, a thick meat stew made from cooking down the "unwanted" parts of the hog. I had come to realize that in South Carolina there was a unique Southern foodways tradition that was peculiar to the State that needed special documentation, particularly because it was so deeply rooted and grounded in the very early history of the Palmetto State and grew to become synonymous with the South Carolina barbecue tradition which is so beloved throughout the state. Hash had its roots in the Colonial period when South Carolina was being settled by English Lord Proprietors. In the 1600's they began bringing to the Carolina colony natives from the Caribbean islands in order to supplement the import of African slaves. One important contribution brought by these Caribs was the introduction of smoked meats over hot coals called barbacoa". This set forth the tradition of barbecue in South Carolina. At the same time on rice and indigo plantations enslaved populations began to expand and it became necessary to provide low cost high nutrition meals. This set up the challenge for the cooks for these slave communities to be able to take the poorer parts of the hogs at hog-killing time - pieces like the hog-head, ears, snouts and innards - and find a way to make these palatable. The cooks combined African spices and seasonings and came up with the concoction we now call hash.

Traditionally served over rice, hash varies from one region of the state to another, with contents and seasonings depending on what tradition has existed there before that is passed down from one hash master to another. Along the coast and inland in the SC Low Country region you will find a pork-based, vinegar infused concoction that, because of its predominate taste is known as a "liver hash"; in the midlands a vinegar infused, mustard-based pork hash is the predominant hash; and in the Upstate the more predominant hash is made from beef, pork and heavily flavored with onions and is referred to as "white hash".

I first became aware of this unique tradition while conducting field research for my documentary on Virginia Brunswick stew which carried me down through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. When I hit South Carolina I did not find Brunswick stew being cooked in black iron pots. Instead, I found a kind of stew called hash that was cooked and served over rice alongside barbecue. Hash found its way into the tradition of local foodways in South Carolina as a means of finding a cheap way to feed slaves working the rice plantations in the Colonial period. The poorer parts of the hog were given to the cooks for the slave populations on the plantations and were made into palatable meals served as a kind of thick meat broth which was extended by serving it over rice. Hash, made delicious by the inventive addition of African seasonings by creative slave cooks became a popular meal cooked in the Carolina rice kitchens and served in the "Big House". The dish became popularized to the extent that it became found on the tables of small farms as these farms began expanding into the interior of the colony.

While working on the Hallowed Ground and Southern Stews documentaries it became clear that a documentary was needed that featured the popularity of Carolina hash. This would be inspired by such moments in shooting "Southern Stews" when I learned through collaboration with Dr. Richard Pillsbury that the name, "hash", is thought to be derived from the French Huguenot population in the city of Charleston. Pillsbury cited a letter sent back to family members from one such citizen of Charleston that mentioned having seen Negro cooks on the plantations cooking a hog stew made of many parts he called "hashiers" similar to the stews cooked in his region of France.

It became apparent while shooting Southern Stews that by the time Brunswick stew was concocted - whether first in Virginia or Georgia - the black iron pots in South Carolina had long ago been filled with an older type of stew called "Carolina hash" that would prove so beloved by South Carolinians that Brunswick stew would not be allowed to displace hash nor penetrate far over the borders of the Palmetto state.

While working with the SC Governors School when I first returned to SC I had the opportunity to get an invitation to fish in one of several well-stocked ponds on the estate of Mrs. Josephine Dabney in Greenwood, SC. At noon on the day when the fish weren't biting a handsome Cadillac pulled up to the edge of the pond and Mrs. Dabney invited me to join her for lunch. On the way, knowing my interest in filmmaking, she told me she wanted to show me a most unusual place filled with local lore that was the most popular little eatery in Greenwood. It was run by a character like none-other - a colorful and loquacious lady named Miss Ruth, who long had become the main attraction, along with her fabled hash, for her faithful customers from all stations of life in Greenwood. We turned down a street that followed railroad tracks that came across a junction at the heart of Greenwood where a tiny little clapboard building stood not more than fifteen feet from the rails where mighty freight trains roared through at set hours during the day - the train engineers always sure to blow their horns and wave at Miss Ruth who stood at her window facing the tracks and waved back. The small building at first glance seemed too small to contain an eatery, but there on top of the roof stood a sign that said "The Hash House".

When I was introduced to Miss Ruth that day, I knew that I would return to shoot a short film about The Hash House. Little did I know that this would not only open the door to my discovery of how deeply and emotionally ingrained into South Carolina folk culture hash had become, but that this documentary would also cause me to depart the Governors School, and would evolve into a folklife documentary video production partnership with McKissick Museum working with my friend, Jay Williams, Coordinator of the Folklife Resource Center. We had already begun work together on the camp meeting documentary project and were planning to seek funding for a documentary entitled "Southern Stews" that would be tied into an exhibition by the same name being planned by Jay Williams based on my "Brunswick Stew" documentary. But the hash documentary would in effect seal that partnership and result in a number of productions, one seemingly spawned by another.

Out of the shoot at the Hash House, I formally committed to a documentary on hash that would cover the tradition of hash cooking by hash masters all over the state, but would end up centering upon the hash making tradition in and around Greenwood, SC - what I came to call the "Hash Hub" of South Carolina. But the way the film would begin was based on a widely-held position all over the state of South Carolina that hash was solely a South Carolina foodway and that you did not find hash cooked once you crossed the State line and drove into Georgia or North Carolina. As one hash aficionado in Greenwood said, "You cross over into North Carolina and they ain't ever heard of hash. They don't even know what it is. Over there, all they know is Brunswick stew." That caused me to root out a hash master named Dave Phillips, proprietor of the Joy Drive-In in Gaffney, SC and ask him if he thought the rumor that folks in North Carolina didn't know what hash was. When he answered, " All you gotta do is drive 18 miles from here into Shelby, North Carolina and start asking around. You'll see. And you really need to ask at Red's Barbecue up there. That's a real popular spot for most people up around there." So that's exactly what I did. And the proof is in the fun set of interviews I shot at Red's that kick off the film with an energy and anticipation of "What's coming next" that sets the "Carolina Hash" docu-mentary apart by winning the coveted Cine Golden Eagle for itself.

What follows is a tour of the state of hash in South Carolina - from Gaffney's the Joy Drive-In in the western part of the state over to near the Georgia/South Carolina State line in Liberty and down to Hampton, SC in the SC Lowcountry, then over to Columbia in the Midlands and finally to the hash hub of Greenwood, where we end up at the estate of Senator William Bryan Dorn, and hear him recall the times when a giant pot of hash hash was cooked and stirred then served at stump meetings held during election time in the back yard of his residence.

In the film, two scholars argue the geography of hash, mounting a case for a sauce flavored differently in the SC Low Country from the mustard-based hash cooked in the Midlands, and yet a different saucing for Upstate hash, which they determine is more of a beef hash than a pork hash. But one thing is for certain - when you talk of hash in South Carolina, it's a Carolina hash, made in South Carolina - not Georgia, not North Carolina.