South Carolina Hash: By the Light of the Moon
by Saddler Taylor. Taylor is the Curator of Folklife & Research at McKissick Museum.
“Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes” (qtd. in Binswager and Charlton 11). With this statement, sociologist John Shelton Reed presents an insightful comparison between two geographically separated and culturally distinct areas of the world. However insightful as it may be, Reed’s assertion is overly simplistic in its implications. Generally speaking, Southern barbecue traditions, and subsequently the South Carolina dish barbecue hash, certainly do have regional variants and are a part of a complex historic, economic, and social dynamic, but I would argue the regional nature of barbecue is much more highly localized than Reed acknowledges. The diversity and vast variation inherent to barbecue, as well as other foods of congregation, is evident when traveling from one neighborhood to another, much less from region to region. Replace one hundred miles with a short walk around the block and a more accurate vision of the southern barbecue--and the South Carolina barbecue hash--landscape is represented.
While barbecue in its various manifestations in the South is a familiar Southern staple, hash is less well known outside of South Carolina. Though recipe differences are limited only by the number of preparers, hash is basically a stew containing a combination of at least one meat, usually pork or beef, and a variety of vegetables that can include potatoes, onions and corn. It is generally prepared in conjunction with beef or pork barbecue; and arguably, the most varied and recipe-specific aspect of hash is the sauce base, or stock. These sauce variations are endless, but usually involve ingredients like mustard, vinegar, ketchup, hot sauce, or Worcestershire sauce. Although many hashmakers use some combination of these ingredients, there are many hash recipes that call for no such sauce additions. Instead, the stock consists of nothing more than a variety of seasonings and broth. From a consumption standpoint, hash is widely regarded as a side-item, eaten on rice or grits, and occasionally in the form of a sandwich.
One common denominator in regional food traditions--including not only hash but also Crawfish boils in Louisiana, clambakes in Massachusetts, “yellow jacket” stews of the Eastern Cherokee, and many others--is the concept of individual variation. Both preparation and consumption, variation is the product of a symbiotic relationship between multiple factors, one being the dynamic and powerful influence of folk belief. Quite often, the presence of a common folk belief(s) is the only similarity between the hash from different regions of South Carolina. While recipes vary widely, there are ritualized aspects of hash preparation and consumption that transcend regionalism. A cursory survey would include such staples as the powerful symbolism of the cast iron stew kettle, the all-night preparation time that invariably includes group social interaction, and the general consensus that hash is to be eaten as a side item.
Additionally, one of the most significant folk beliefs associated with the preparation of has involves the proper time to prepare the stew. Hashmakers overwhelming agree on the best time: by the light of the full moon. Due largely to South Carolina’s agrarian roots, many widely circulated folk beliefs, customs, and superstitions are directly related to early thoughts regarding farming practices and crop growth cycles, specifically the moon and its subsequent effects on crops and harvesting. While most farmers now rely on the nightly television weather report more than they do the seminal Farmers Almanac or the location of certain constellations in the night sky, these same agricultural folk beliefs have been adapted to apply to other aspects of South Carolina life, particularly the preparation of barbecue hash.
In one particular barbecue establishment, the proprietors have settled on a cooking schedule that has taken years to develop, one based on traditional moon lore. Mister Hawg’s, like most South Carolina barbecue establishments, grew out of a localized family tradition – the “shade tree” cooking of so many other backyard barbecue masters. With humble beginnings in the backyard of the family homeplace, brothers Marion and Davis Robinson would help their father and grandfather cook barbecue and hash for neighbors on July 4th and other special celebratory occasions. The community response grew to such a degree that the brothers finally decided a restaurant was the next step. Soon they had an established operation on a major highway in the upper midlands region of South Carolina. Within a few years, however, they were simply overwhelmed by the demand for their barbecue and made the decision to close the restaurant. However, they experienced a powerful example of the influence of a community aesthetic.1 Their neighbors refused to accept that they were no longer preparing barbecue. Mister Hawg’s customer base had become so loyal, large and geographically diverse that many people heard of the shut-down after traveling long distances to acquire the local delicacy, only to find a “closed” sign hanging on the door2. However, due to the local community’s overwhelming reaction to the closing, the brothers finally decided to make barbecue again, but on their terms--a compromise would have to be reached. Clearly the community’s interest lay only in the opportunity to buy the brothers’ hash again, with much less interest in the reopening of the restaurant itself.3 For the brothers, the operation had to be more manageable since the “restaurant staff” consisted of the two brothers and any close friends they could talk into showing up to help. The decision was made to sell barbecue one day a month--not one weekend a month but only one Saturday a month. And not just any Saturday, but the last Saturday of every month.
During one of our conversations I asked Marion what made them decide on this particular day. Big crowds? Work schedules? Financial considerations? Those are some of the answers I expected to hear. “You ever hear about digging post holes on the dark of the moon?”4 Marion asked, with a look so earnest and penetrating that there was no doubt as to the seriousness of the question. “Why, if you dig a post hole on the dark of the moon, you aren’t going to have enough dirt to fill that hole back in.” Other men in the room repeated the adage and applied it to other aspects of rural activity. Cutting down trees for firewood, filling up baskets and buckets with harvested crops – all of these personal experience narratives dealt with the ability to maximize one’s resources when the moon is full or “on the light side.”
As Marion explained, “You see, the last Saturday of the month is always going to be on the light of the moon, and our hash pots will overflow if we aren’t careful.” Stories began to flow about cooking hash on the “dark side” and not getting as much as you would on the night of a full moon, despite putting the same type and quantity of ingredients into the large cast iron pots. The common sense solution was to only cook when the same amount of material would produce more hash to sell to the consumer.
These types of personal experience narratives, or what C. W. von Sydow classified as “memorates” (Brunvand 161), are the foundational framework of the larger folk belief. The constant repetition of these narratives, coupled with situational context, strengthens and adds credence to the folk belief. It is imperative to note that the reason the Robinson brothers operate when they do is not anomalous, not a strange blip on the traditional barbecue hash radar screen. Barbecue chefs, stew- and hashmasters alike continue to speak quite earnestly about the powerful influence the moon has on food p