The Story of Hash & Rice

How a hearty, gravy-like stew became an iconic South Carolina BBQ side dish — and perhaps birthed Georgia's Brunswick stew?

By Robert F. Moss

Hash and rice alongside mustard-dressed pork at Bessinger's Barbecue, Charleston, SC
Hash and rice alongside mustard-dressed pork at Bessinger's Barbecue, Charleston, SC

Note: this story was originally published on March 13, 2020, but I've since revised it to more thoroughly articulate my theory that Hash and Brunswick Stew are very closely related.

Like yellow mustard-based sauce, hash is a distinctive feature of the South Carolina barbecue style. A sort of cross between a thick gravy and a stew, it’s made from pork and (often) various pig organs and is usually served over white rice, though sometimes grits or bread are used instead. In most parts of the state, hash is generally considered a side dish to accompany barbecue, not a meal unto itself, but in some restaurants you can order it as a standalone dish.

Hash originated sometime prior to the Civil War in the counties on either side of the Savannah River, which forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina. Estella Jones, who was born enslaved on Powers Pond Place near Augusta, recalled that when she was a child, some of the men would occasionally steal hogs from other plantations and “cook hash and rice and serve barbecue.”

The Abbeville Press and Banner published several accounts of hash being served at community barbecues in the 1850s, including the “rich hash” served at a barbecue at Matthews’ Spring in 1854 and the “tenderest, fattest mutton, nicely barbecued pig, smoking hash, Irish potatoes, beets, &c.” at a dinner at Robinson’s Spring in 1858. In 1861, at the opening of the Civil War, a barbecue was held to honor the Edgefield Riflemen, who hailed from the county just across the Savannah River from Augusta, as they prepared to leave for battle. The menu included “barbecued meats, and hash.”

Hash originated as a way to use up every bit of a pig when it was slaughtered, whether in preparation for a barbecue or at a more ordinary hog killing. A pig slaughtered for a barbecue would be butterflied and prepared to go on the pit. At hog killings in late fall, the pig’s fat would be rendered to lard and the hams, shoulders, and belly salted and hung in a smokehouse. In either case, the head, organs, and various other parts were left behind, and these ended up going into a large iron pot and rendered into hash.

The stew’s name likely derives from “haslet,” an old English term for the viscera of a butchered animal. In nineteenth-century accounts, that stew was often referred to as “giblet hash” or “liver and lights hash”—“lights” being an old term for the lungs. In most early versions, the cook would start with a hog’s head, liver, and other organ meats and cook them with water in an iron stew pot over an open fire.

A old iron hash pot and wooden paddle, The Museum and Railroad Historical Center, Greenwood, South Carolina
A old iron hash pot and wooden paddle, The Museum and Railroad Historical Center, Greenwood, South Carolina

Like the original Brunswick stew recipes from Virginia, this combination was slowly simmered for many hours—sometimes a full day—until the ingredients had broken down and merged into a thick, consistent, gravy-like substance. Some cooks would add other ingredients like red pepper, mustard, onion, and potatoes, but hash has always depended primarily on slow-simmered meats and organs for its rich, hearty flavor.

W. J. Mills was the
W. J. Mills was the "hash king" of Newberry County, per the Newberry Herald & News, 1891 (Hat tip to Daniel Vaughn for finding this ad)

By the 1880s, hash was being served at barbecues as far north as Newberry, South Carolina, and as far south as Macon in central Georgia—much farther south than hash is found today. In fact, there seems to have been a good bit of confusion in central Georgia about the difference between hash and Brunswick stew. Sheriff John W. Callaway of Washington, Georgia, always called his barbecue side dish “hash,” but newspaper reporters (especially those visiting from up north) frequently called it “Brunswick stew.” Perhaps those reporters thought it resembled Virginia’s famed hunting stew, which dates back to the 1820s and was christened after the county where it originated, Brunswick, Virginia?

By some point there clearly was a difference between the two, though. According to a 1907 newspaper account, a Christmas barbecue Callaway cooked for Wilkes County convicts included “several gallons of hash and a like quantity of Brunswick Stew.”

It seems more likely to me that what Georgians call Brunswick stew today actually evolved out of the South Carolina hash tradition as a variant of the original recipe instead of somehow leaping over the Palmetto State on its way down from Virginia.

When Maude Adams of Harper’s Weekly visited the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, she sampled Sheriff Wilkes’s famous stew and claimed that it “for reasons not altogether clear even to its maker, bears the mysterious name of Brunswick.” Andrews got the recipe from one of the African American cooks, and its formula (rendered by Andrews in awful dialect spellings) seems remarkably similar to that of classic South Carolina hash, with a few additions: “[Y]er jest takes the meat, de hog’s haid, an’ de libbers, an’ all sorts er little nice parts, an’ yer chops it up wid corn and permattuses, an’ injuns an’ green peppers, an’ yer stews and stews tell hit all gits erlike, an’ yer kain’t tell what hit’s made uv.”

Note that there are no tomatoes or limas in the pot Adams describes. I’ve seen plenty of descriptions and recipes for 19th century Virginia-style Brunswick stew, and none of them start with hogs heads and livers. The Virginia version was a hunting stew that used whole skinned squirrels as its base, and chickens when the hunters’ luck wasn’t so good.

A possible hash-to-Brunswick “missing link” can be found in an article from the 1920 Macon Telegraph, which is headlined, “Just Twixt Us. About Brunswick Stew.”

The underlying, or as you might say the fundamental ingredients, the basis, of Brunswick stew is what is known as the haslet of the hog, the heart, the liver, lights, kidneys, the goozle, head and feet of the hog whose carcass browns and drips grease fit-fully on the red embers of hickory twigs in the trench or the pit. On top of this haslet is dumped tomatoes, corn, English pease, beans, cubes of Irish potatoes, okra, onions, peppers and such other things as should not go to waste, and the identity of which can be lost in the general mixture. All of this goes into the pot to stew and simmer until all the meat is tender. The longer it stews and simmers the better it is.

Like the stew described by Adams, this sounds like a straight up South Carolina-style liver and lights hash, except there are even more veggies added to the pot in the 1920 variety.

Hash remains an integral part of the Midlands South Carolina barbecue tradition today, where it is served over white rice at barbecue joints from Columbia down to Charleston. The hearty gravy is barely known beyond the borders of the Palmetto State, and visiting diners find it as puzzling as the region’s signature yellow mustard-based sauce.

In Georgia, Brunswick stew has won out as the standard barbecue side dish. A lot of hot air has been expended in the debate with Virginia over which state originated the stew—a pointless argument, since the Virginians clearly have the solid historical claim. Georgians would be better off looking over the Savannah River to their neighbors in South Carolina, for hash and the Georgia version of Brunswick stew are likely distant cousins.

At the recently-closed Cannon's BBQ in Little Mountain, S.C., the hash was tinged bright yellow with mustard
At the recently-closed Cannon's BBQ in Little Mountain, S.C., the hash was tinged bright yellow with mustard

Some South Carolina barbecue joints, like Big T in Gadsden and Brown’s in Kingstree, still make their hash with hogs heads and/or liver. In recent decades, though, many cooks have omitted the organ meats and use inexpensive cuts of pork like the shoulder and hams, and many add beef to the pot, too. Instead of using big iron kettles over a wood fire, these days most restaurants cook their hash on gas stoves in giant stainless steel pots.

Though the methods and ingredients have evolved, two things haven’t changed about South Carolina hash. Cooks still use the magic of long, slow simmering to transform humble ingredients into a rich delicacy, and South Carolinians still love eating it alongside a big plate of barbecue.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.