Is South Carolina’s signature barbecue side about to have its moment?

By Robert Moss
March 25, 2020
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A plate of whole hog barbecue with hash and rice on the side, Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que in Holly Hill, South Carolina.
Rober Moss

I recently read that hash and rice, the signature barbecue side dish of South Carolina, might be doomed to the ash heap of history. I almost choked on my sweet tea.

This troubling news was delivered in a special report in the Charleston Post & Courier. The reporting in the piece is quite good, with wide-ranging interviews and copious details about the history and process for making the slow-simmered stew. It also offers a handy guide to finding barbecue joints in the Lowcountry that serve hash and rice . . . for now at least.

If you believe the Post & Courier’s headline, the hash forecast is bleak. “South Carolina's greatest contribution to barbecue canon,” it asserts, is “fading across [the] Lowcountry.” Subsequent social media promotions cast it in even more dire terms, saying it’s “fading fast.”

But the more I studied it, the more I took issue with the story’s conclusions. In fact, as I look around the barbecue landscape today, I think this once-obscure side dish is poised for a remarkable resurgence.

I wouldn’t have said this five years ago. Texas-style smoked brisket was rolling across the Southeast, threatening to displace other regions’ traditional specialties—mutton and burgoo in Kentucky, chopped pork with Brunswick stew in Georgia.

It was particularly bad in my native South Carolina. Our signature yellow mustard-based sauce and that mysterious hash and rice remained virtually unknown outside the Palmetto State. As more diners moved in from other places, they brought barbecue preferences shaped by the Internet and food television. Increasingly customers were walking into South Carolina joints and demanding, “Where’s the brisket?” They didn’t even know to ask for hash.

For those yet not familiar with this South Carolina delicacy, it’s a traditional barbecue stew that dates back to the early 19th century. It emerged from rural hog killing traditions as a way to make use of every last scrap of the pig—the head, the livers, and other organ meats. (For more of the backstory, see my short history of hash and rice here.)

When South Carolinians slaughtered a hog for barbecuing, they naturally made hash from the parts that didn’t make it on the pit. As barbecue moved indoor into restaurants in the 20th century, hash came along with it, becoming a standard side dish, with the thick, rich stew ladled over a bed of cooked white rice.

Along the way, as restaurants shifted from cooking whole hogs to using just shoulders and hams, a lot of cooks switched to making hash with the leftover pork from the previous day. Amid a growing squeamishness toward liver in the 1980s and 1990s, they started omitting the organ meats, too, making old-fashioned “liver hash” increasingly hard to find.

The Post & Courier report makes much of this liver/non-liver divide in its diagnosis of hash’s decline. Author Hanna Raskin opens by noting that Rodney Scott, the acclaimed South Carolina pitmaster, won’t have hash on the menu as he launches new restaurants in Birmingham and Atlanta. She returns to Scott in the closing, predicting, “If that trend [of omitting liver] continues, it won’t just be Rodney Scott’s BBQ patrons in faraway cities who get an incomplete picture of South Carolina barbecue. It will be eaters who live here, too.”

But the newspaper’s own data tells a different story. Accompanying the piece is a restaurant roundup that identifies no fewer than 28 barbecue restaurants east of I-95 that serve hash today. Of these, 13—almost half—include liver in the pot. I had no idea that many liver-hash joints were left in the Lowcountry.

The numbers are even stronger when you look at the state as a whole. James Roller of the Destination BBQ web site—a valuable resource that documents South Carolina barbecue—has created an interactive map of all the restaurants in the state that serve hash. So far, he’s identified 160—roughly half of all the barbecue restaurants in South Carolina.

Roller plotted out all the hash-sellers on an online map. To me eye, it doesn’t look like the shrinking habitat of an endangered species but evidence of a thriving local tradition.

At least 160 barbecue restaurants in South Carolina serve hash today.

If hash were fading, you would expect to find it only in older joints and not on the menu at recently-opened restaurants. But that’s emphatically not the case.

Here in Charleston, where I live, plenty of new-school joints feature hash. It’s on the menu at all three locations of Home Team BBQ (founded 2006) as well as at Smoky Oak Taproom (2009), though there they call it “rice and hash,” for some reason. It appears alongside the corn pudding and brisket-laced beans at Swig ‘n Swine (2013), which has three restaurants in the Lowcountry.

Smack in the heart of restaurant row on East Bay Street, Poogan’s Smokehouse (2016) not only serves hash and rice as a side but also incorporates it into the “Hash Belly Bird” (with pork belly, sunny side egg, and pico de gallo) and piles it atop pork rinds with BBQ baked peanuts, cheddar, and jalapeños to create “Redneck Nachos”. They’re really hashing things up.

Even more surprising is that a lot of these newer places are putting liver in their hash, and their pitmasters aren’t even native South Carolinians. Anthony DiBernardo at Swig n’ Swine, a native of Philadelphia, puts liver in his, as does Georgia-born Aaron Siegel at Home Team BBQ, and he has to take extra steps to do so.

“We order in pork livers,” Siegel says, “because we don’t use whole hog. We used smoked pork shoulder along with the livers, then add an array of our barbecue sauces.”

When asked why they decided to include liver, Siegel says, “We wanted ours to be rich. We have people come in and have an issue with the liver, but we have enough people eating it that we aren't going to change.”

Indeed, at least one Charleston restaurant has reversed course and added liver back into its hash. For years the hash at Melvin’s Barbecue had been made with only pork hams, but the founder’s son, David Bessinger, went old school a few years ago. “We use jowls, liver, ham and shoulder, top round beef, and potatoes,” Bessinger told me. “My father didn’t do all that.”

Rodney Scott may not be taking hash with him as he expands beyond the state, but other pitmasters with South Carolina roots most certainly are.

Bryan Furman, who learned to cook pigs on his grandparents’ farm near Camden, took hash and rice down to Georgia, where he opened the first B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Savannah in 2014. He uses the heads and leftover scraps from the whole hogs he cooks, and he slow-simmers them in his mustard-based, peach-infused sauce.

When Furman headed west to Atlanta to open a second B’s, Atlanta Magazine helpfully described hash for its big city readers as “a barbecued meat sauce poured over white rice.” That’s not an incorrect description, but it certainly lacks poetry.

Hash is heading north, too. When he opened Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, Elliott Moss took hash into the North Carolina mountains—a region that had never seen such a concoction before. In addition to serving his own recipe, Moss conducts occasional hash tastings for friends, offering samples from various South Carolina joints brought back from visits to his hometown of Florence.

A side of hash and rice at Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, North Carolina
Robert Moss

And he hasn’t stopped there. Moss (no relation, by the way, despite our shared surname and love for hash) may well be the Johnny Appleseed of hash. When he traveled down to the Firebox barbecue festival on St. Simons Island in Brunswick County, Georgia, he cooked a gigantic cauldron of hash right there in the heart of Brunswick stew country. For many of the hundreds of Georgians in attendance, it was their first introduction to the South Carolina treat. The cauldron was empty by the end of the night.

At the Firebox Festival in St. Simons, Georgia, in October 2019, Elliot Moss of Buxton Hall BBQ cooked South Carolina-style hash over a wood fires.

Moss included his recipe in his restaurant’s cookbook, Buxton Hall Barbecue’s Book of Smoke. It calls for a two-to-one ratio of leftover pulled pork to chicken livers—that right, livers—seasoned with onion, garlic, and a combination of tomato- and mustard-based barbecue sauces. But you can make whatever substitutions you like. “There’s no wrong way to make a hash,” Moss writes.

Thanks to roaming Carolinians like Furman and Moss, hash has been featured recently—often with a recipe included—in glossy publications like Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and The Local Palate. Last year, Morgan Bolling, a North Carolina native and Deputy Food Editor at America's Test Kitchen, convinced the powers that be to run a hash recipe in their Cook’s Country magazine, which is published all the way up in Boston!

Is hash now poised to break out of the Carolinas and finally go national? A few recent reports from distant barbecue regions suggest that it may be. Where it is starting to gain a foothold these days might surprise you.

I’ll cover that part of the story in the next installment, so keep your eyes peeled. Until then, if you’re picking up takeout barbecue and see hash and rice on the menu, give it a try. It’s warm, comforting, and very filling—a fitting dish for troubling times like these.