Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hash? Sheesh!















So we trekked all the way to Seattle to meet a garrulous group who had trekked all the way from Whidbey Island; we rendezvoused at the Sorrento Hotel, which refers to itself as "the longest running luxury hotel in Seattle" (I didn't see it move, let alone run), and we "brunched."

To my mild astonishment, if astonishment can be mild, corned beef hash was listed on the menu. It was easily the most interesting dish listed, and the sight of the words made me a wee bit nostalgic, so I had to order the dish.

Alas and alack, I was served, not hash, but simply strips of corned beef. I managed to find sustenance in what I ate, but nonetheless, I was disappointed that I hadn't actually been served hash, which is ground-up meat. My parents and many in their generation routinely made hash with a cast-iron meat-grinder. Hash of this sort is connected with some social-class issues and "stretching a dollar." If you have a piece of tough meat left over, one way to use it is to grind it up into a hash and serve it for dinner or breakfast or both. Probably through the 1950s and into the 1960s, hash was also a mainstay of diners' breakfast-menus. One hardly ever sees it now. It''s much too folksy, and it probably takes too much time to make, although I think you may still buy it in a can.

A fellow I was dining with had also remembered hash of the old-fashioned kind, and he opined that, in this economy, corned beef hash might make a comeback. He also observed that Spam (referring to meat in a can, not to unwanted email messages) has become much more popular and that in Hawaii it has remained popular because Hawaii has to import most of its meat. "Spam and hash are inexpensive ways of getting protein," he said, cutting to the economic and metabolic chase.

According the the OED online, hash (as referring to ground-up meat), goes back linguistically to the 17th century, and Samuel Pepys's (pronounced Peeps) famous diary is cited as a source. Not too long thereafter, "hash" took on a derogatory connotation, meaning a mess, as in "he made a hash of things." A poem by Alexander Pope from 1735 is cited in this case. Pope uses the term figuratively and writes of a "hash of tongues," a mixture of languages--not ground-up tongues.

Then the term "settle [his] hash"--as in vanquishing a person--came into the language in the early 1800s. I almost never hear the term anymore, and in fact I didn't hear it all that often in my childhood.

Apparently, hash-browned potatoes, as a term, arose in the language after 1900. Probably most of us think of hash-browned potatoes as fried (browned) potato slices, but some people think of them as bits of potatoes fried--hence the link to hash, I assume.

As to corned beef itself: it refers to salted beef. "Corning" is a form of "curing" meet, and the connection is to corns or pieces of salt, not to corn itself. A "corned beef and cabbage" meal is still associated with Easter Sunday and with Irish cuisine. I rather liked corned beef and cabbage when I was growing up. The (boiled) cabbage (of the light green, not of the purple, variety) was served with vinegar.

"Hashish" actually pre-dates "hash," going all the way back to 1598 and referring, of course, to processed Indian hemp-plant, which was also called "bhang." I think I prefer "bhang" to "hash" in this instance--not that I know anything about smoking hash, but I did have a friend once who smoked it, and according to him, it was mightily more powerful than marijuana and had the effect of removing the top of his head, gently. "Hash" as referring to "hashish" came into the language in the 1950s, at least according to the OED online, which cites Norman Mailer, of all people. Perhaps things got a little complicated in big cities when people walked into diners and asked for "a plate of hash." "Would that be the Irish or the Indian hash, sir? There's a bit of a price-difference, and are you a cop?"

Being a nerd to the third power, I had to wonder of "hashish" was related in any way to "assizes," as in "the court of assizes" in Britain. Nope. "Assizes" refers to judgments, and it's related to the Old French "assise," which concerns sitting down. So if you go to the court of assizes, you and the judge and your expensive barristers and solicitors sit down, and you get your judgment, unless you're stuck in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House, but then that's the court of chancery.

And finally, on a football (American) field, there are small white dashes or marks toward the center of the field, and these are called "hash-marks," but the linkage is to marks on a military uniform, also called "hash-marks," and as far as I can tell, there's no connection to smoking hash or eating corned beef hash, although the rules of American football seem to have been devised by people who had smoked hash, and I know at least one NFL referee who seems to make rulings on the field without benefit of the top of his head.

Oh my goodness, I've made a hash of this post.
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