The name comes from the French hacher, meaning “to chop,” which also is the source of the word hatchet. There are dozens of recipes for the classic French hachis in the Larousse Gastronomique, most of which consist of minced meat without onion or potato fillers and would be unrecognizable as hash to most Americans. The English were making hache or hachy by the 14th century. Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, recorded a meal he enjoyed in 1662 that began with oysters and was followed by “a hash of rabbits.” American GIs ate a steady diet of corned beef hash, which they called “corned Willie,” during the first World War.
According to John Thorne, an American chef who explored his culinary roots in the state of Maine through a large square tome titled Serious Pig, corned beef hash is likely the creation of Yankee cooks. He believes it resulted from the need to use leftovers from the ubiquitous New England boiled dinner, a dish traditionally composed of corned beef boiled with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, rutabaga or turnips and white onions (Well, the onion may be controversial; Maine writer John J. Pullen, in The Transcendental Boiled Dinner, his 1972 meditation on the sad quality of regional food prepared far from its native environment, states that “He who puts an onion into a New England Boiled Dinner should have his ears cropped.”)
Thorne continues, “Hash is one of those dishes that to taste is to know how to make… hash became America’s standard cheap meal — the hamburger before the hamburger — from the Civil War well into our century.” He points out that, while today’s hamburger joints are an “homage to the automobile,” with big glass windows overlooking the road, yesterday’s hash house was “a windowless cave; outside were flies, clouds of dust, horses and their endless droppings… You went inside to put all this at a distance… The word worked its way into our language as a metaphor for any cheap grub, giving us ‘hash house’, ‘hash slinger’, and such spinoffs as to ‘make a hash of things’ or ‘hash it out’.”
A great way to extend meat by adding vegetables, hash typically includes a protein (meat – usually corned beef), a starch (potato – red potatoes or Yukon Golds hold their shape better than russets) and a vegetable (onion, bell pepper, garlic). Sometimes a binder (raw egg or custard – egg mixed with dairy, like cream – one egg for every cup of protein) serves to hold them together. Proportions usually are equal amounts of protein and starch, and vegetables a quarter to half of that total. Flavorings include salt and pepper, then herbs and spices, hot sauce, mustard, Worcestershire, soy sauce, etc.
This fundamental formula for American hash is so simple that you might think a recipe is unnecessary. You would be wrong. For example:
o There is heated debate over how hash should be prepped (shredded, chopped or diced ?) and whether shortcuts, like using a food processor, are acceptable; Traditionalists want their hash cut by hand into diminutive, uniform cubes.
o And there are arguments over choice of meat; Mr. Pullen eschews the use of corned beef in favor of a piece of center cut beef shin, which imparts the smoothness of marrow to the broth. Hash can be made from roasted beef, chicken, pork loin, or last night’s salmon. There is such a thing as clam hash, known on the East Coast by names like slunk (Long Island) and stifle (Nantucket). James Beard included two clam hash recipes in American Cookery, one of which is reportedly his Oregon family’s favorite.
o Some like their hash ingredients to mingle, but others cook each ingredient separately and only mix them at the end of cooking. And some choose to bind their hash with eggs and/or cream, while others prefer their hash loose.
o Finally, there’s the question of crust, and how best to obtain it; The standard method is to saute the hash in a cast iron skillet, pressing down on the ingredients with the back of a spoon to encourage the bottom to brown, but there are those, including James Beard, who offer recipes that recommend baking hash until a firm crust forms across the top.