The Hashmasters

Peter Frank Edwards
by Hunter Kennedy - South Carolina - Oct/Nov 2010

A culinary road trip through rural South Carolina in pursuit of smoke, fire, and the lost art of making barbecue hash

Click here to watch a video of hashmasters in action.

Gary Wise ushers me into the open-air cookhouse behind his restaurant, where the air is hazy with vaporized grease. At the end of a row of cinderblock pits, I quickly spot what I’m looking for—a man-size ninety-gallon cast-iron kettle. This is where they cook the barbecue hash.

If you’re unsure of exactly what I’m talking about, you’ve got plenty of company. This unsung side dish of stewed pork served over rice has been eaten in South Carolina since the colonists first learned how to slow-cook a hog, but few outside the state have ever tasted it. We’ve got more distinct barbecue styles (four sauces) than any other state in the country, and hash is no different—the approach can radically change depending on the terrain. This Saturday morning I happen to be in upper Newberry County, in the district between the Broad and Saluda rivers that was first settled by German families and is still known as the Dutch Fork. Here at Wise’s Bar-B-Q, hash is made with pork shoulders drenched in mustard, apple cider vinegar, and black pepper, and then stirred with a paddle for eight hours or so until the stewed meat has broken down to its elemental strands. Hash is the first thing you’ll find on the self-serve buffet at this barbecue joint or any other north or west of Columbia, and the dish is critical to a barbecue restaurant’s statewide prestige. Good hash is harder to find than good barbecue, which isn’t exactly easy to track down.

That might explain why I drove 150 miles to this cinderblock hut on a desolate stretch along Highway 76 to wait in line for lunch. Despite the Internet age, the only place you can find this hash is at the restaurant, and Wise’s Bar-B-Q is open only two days a week. The one kettle of hash Gary Wise makes every week is gone by Saturday evening—if not before. When I ask the laconic forty-year-old if he ever ships the stuff, he strokes his mustache for a moment, eyes scrunched.

“Nah. It’s too much trouble.”

Since his father, Johnny, and uncle Jimmy first opened the joint forty years ago, little has changed in the restaurant aside from one small detail. The wood fire beneath the hash kettles and in the hog pits has been replaced by gas flame. In the past twenty years or so, most barbecue joints have switched to cooking with gas, thanks to its stable temperature and shorter prep time, so I would have been impressed if they were still shoveling hickory coals under the pot. Few realize that wood smoke is as critical an ingredient to a good hash as mustard, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for. At the very least, Gary Wise still makes mustard hash in the original cast-iron kettle, which after four decades is seasoned with the kind of patina found in a favorite frying pan. That pleasant spike of vinegar mixed with hints of ash and iron sends a familiar shiver through my palate, triggering memories of summer dinners with my grandparents on the back porch and bachelor feasts made from frozen quarts bootlegged to a ramshackle apartment in New York City.