‘Back in the day, canned hash was a staple,” recalls longtime Bostonian Joyce Foster. “Any Depression-era person will tell you how horrible it was.” That hash-lovers have more and better options these days is something the Fenway resident considers “an outstanding example of improvements in American life.”
Settling on fresh hash, then, is easy; the definition of hash remains, however, somewhat unsettled. It can come ground or chopped or shredded, with meat or fish or vegetables (including beets, in the traditional New England red-flannel sense of the dish), and usually, but not always, some potato, and generally, but not always, fried.
The 1939 cookbook “Good Maine Food” asserts dourly that if your hash doesn’t consist of finely chopped meat, then “hash is not hash at all, but merely food scraps.” Clark Haass, an Oregon-based writer who chronicles his obsession with the shape-shifting dish on the website Hashcapades.com, is more broad-minded. “In the final analysis, it’s more about the chopped or shredded nature of the dish than whether or not leftovers are involved,” Haass says. He has enjoyed “deconstructed” hash, in which chopped corned beef was adorned with asparagus spears and shoestring potatoes, and another version of hash that was “more like a stew.”
Perhaps it’s just a matter of knowing it when we see it — or taste it. There are hashes of blissful memory. A hearty cod hash in a Newfoundland port town could have made an atheist believe in Neptune. The turkey hash at Charlie’s in Boston’s South End — spectacular with a dash of green Tabasco, regulars advise — is a dish to which every leftover-bedeviled cook should aspire on Black Friday.
But for most, hash means simply leftover corned beef and a bit of boiled potato, maybe a scrap of onion, and a cast-iron pan or griddle. We looked for restaurant hashes that fall in the good-to-great category, and agree with Haass that hash is a “miraculous culinary continuum.”
“Our hash is chopped,” says owner Larry Williams. “It’s faster. And that’s the way the customers like it.” When Williams bought the former Steve’s Diner in Malden Square in 1991, “They had the can, so we had the can. Then we used to buy it frozen,” but their supplier stopped offering it.
Served with a pair of eggs, home fries, and toast, Doo-Wop’s hash features fresh corned beef, not leftovers. Williams and his son, Stephen, and their staff boil the beef every other day or so. “It spoils very, very fast,” says Larry Williams. “It has about a two-day life span if you leave it in the fridge, so we freeze it and just take out what we need that day.”
Into the hash goes potato, a little onion, “and some other stuff,” says Stephen Williams neutrally. Dad and the wait staff agree that hash is their breakfast bestseller. “There are times that we can’t keep up with it,” he says. They see no typical hash eater. “It’s everybody,” he says. Well, not quite everybody. “I only had it once in here,” Stephen admits. “I’m just not a hash person.” 269 Main St., Malden, 781-324-9441.
Hash has been on the menu at this Norwell restaurant since 1982 or so, recalls owner Pat McKinley. “We used to have corned beef and red flannel hash, you know, with beets,” she says. “I loved it, but I think I was the only one. Now we just do the corned beef.”
Her kitchen turns out hash made with red brisket, boiled potato, red onion, “and of course, seasoning,” McKinley says. The beef is hand-cut, not ground, she emphasizes. An order comes with eggs, home fries, and thick-cut homemade toast. Men order more hash than women, McKinley and a pair of waitresses agree. They also notice that hash-eaters are better tippers.
“People like it crunchy, crunchy, crunchy,” says McKinley. “My cooks don’t like to do that, because A, it takes a lot longer, and B, they’re afraid it will come out too well done. It’s better to have it underdone and send it back to get crunchier than have it overdone.”
After 37 years at the restaurant, she’s decided, “it’s very hard to please everybody.”
14 Pond St., Norwell,
Deluxe Town Diner
The plate of hash comes with orange highlights: Could they be carrots? “Oh, yes,” beams Daryl Levy, who with her husband, Don, has owned the Watertown standby for 12 years (they also own Deluxe Station Diner in Newton Centre). Carrots came to the corned-beef-and-potato party during Don Levy’s time running the former Blue Diner in Boston’s Leather District.
Making the hash is a two-day process, says Daryl Levy. Corned beef is boiled with spices, then rests for a day. Vegetables are cooked separately. The meat is pulled apart, the ingredients mixed, and the hash allowed to rest again, to blend flavors. “It’s a fabulous seller,” she says, and customers often ask for it “extra crispy. No one ever says it’s too crispy.” Customer feedback has led to the dish “hash Benedict.”
Far more men than women order hash. “Well,” Levy says, “it’s a very hearty breakfast meat.” But she hasn’t noticed whether hash-eaters are more generous. “Good tipping comes with good service,” she says. “I hope we’re always getting good tips.” 627 Mount Auburn St., Watertown, www.deluxe
Everyone may know the Agawam, welcoming travelers on the North Shore since 1940, for its glorious array of pies. But try the hash. “We go through a lot of hash,” says Angela Mitchell, part of the extended family that owns and staffs the diner. It’s only been “four years, maybe five” since the spot started serving hash. “We always felt like there was not enough room on the grill,” Mitchell says. “Then we got this recipe. . .”
The cooks boil corned beef and grind it, adding irregular chunks of potato and white onion with spices. As with the entire breakfast menu, it’s served all day. “I’d say we make it fresh three to four times a week, on average,” she says. “If we do run out, it’s for like 15 minutes.”
Though it’s offered a la carte, most customers order the hash with eggs, commonly dropped.
And crispy? “Definitely crispy.” 166 Newburyport Turnpike, Rowley, 978-948-7780.
Jim Chiavelli can be reached at email@example.com.