Marvin C. Ross, then eight years old, watched Willis Spells in Dorchester, South Carolina make barbecue hash for the first time.
Spells stirred the groundhog head meat using a device resembling a boat’s oar. After hours of stirring, he finally tasted what everyone had been waiting for. He now knows that it is a state-invented culinary creation.
Ross, 39, remembered decades later that “people came from all around to eat this hash.”
They still come here to eat South Carolina’s specialty, a meat gravy made with hog meat. It is usually served over plain, white rice and can be found only in South Carolina.
“Barbecue, The History of an American Institution” is the title of Robert F. Moss. He’s a contributing editor at Southern Living and author of “Barbecue.”
Jim Wellman, the president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, says that all do not love it.
South Carolinians take their hash seriously.
Debbie Bessinger is the office manager of Melvin’s Legendary Barbecue, with locations in Mount Pleasant and James Island, South Carolina. Both are near Charleston.
“I grew up eating Brunswick stew, not hash. I was raised in North Carolina.”
Hash is often eaten as a side dish with barbecue. They may also use it as a side dish with barbecue, adding spoonfuls to rice, grits or potatoes, toast, or other meat.
Where does the hash come from?
Before the Civil War, Moss says that hash was created in the counties on either side of Savannah River, the border between Georgia & South Carolina. He said it’s hard to pinpoint who made the hash.
It was found in a WPA slave story by a woman who recalled growing up in Georgia,” stated Moss.
Moss’ website states: “Estella, born an enslaved child on Powers Pond Place, near Augusta, recalls that some men used to steal hogs and cook hash, rice, and barbecue for her as a young girl.”
Spells was Marvin Ross Hash’s mentor. He remembered older people calling it “slave hash,” but he never did.
Howard Conyers is a pitmaster who calls himself the “guardian” of barbecue culture and history. He said, “What’s been written in the past years has not been completely accurate.” You didn’t hear the voices of those who were cooking. We only have oral histories to tell us about the traditions of those people.
Conyers is a South Carolinian transplant who lives in New Orleans. He mentors Ross in the Kingsford program dedicated to preserving and promoting Black barbecue culture. Kingsford’s website notes that “the Black community ignited American BBQ more than 350 years ago …”
There are thousands of recipes.
Everyone agrees that the barbecue hash was born out of the desire for poor people not to waste food and have something to eat.
Hash is what’s left after the pig. I’ve met people who used the liver as their main organ, but I have never seen them use the heart. Wellman explained, “It’s basically meat you wouldn’t want to be barbecued.”
There are a million recipes. “The funny thing is that they all look and taste the same,” said he, laughing. They start with a basic recipe, then let their whimsy run wild and add whatever they like.
Spells and Ross claim they still make the hash Spells’ dad did, but only with the hog’s heads.
Ross, a fifth-generation farmer, and his spouse own Peculiar Pork Farm and Peculiar Piggy Eats in Dorchester County. Spells and Ross regularly host significant ticketed events at which they make hash. Visitors from all over the country attend cooking demonstrations, farm tours, and sit-down dinners, including soup.
Ross was referring to the questions posed by people moving from the North. “I say, ‘meat gravy.’ “
He is a very polite and soft-spoken man. He thinks that telling them just before a meal would be the worst time to inform them that they are about to eat hog’s heads ground up wouldn’t be the best thing to do.
Ross offered, a little disgusted: “I know of a restaurant in two towns away where they make it out of butts.” “The head is undervalued.”
Ross and Spells cook the ground head in a large cast iron pot and then stew tomatoes with mustard and other seasonings outside in a second pot before stirring them all together.
Spells said, “It is a lengthy process.” He chuckles. “You grind up (the head) and add the sauce to it.” He won’t say much more about his secret recipe. It’s a secret family recipe. “I eat other peoples’ hash but they can’t eat mine.”