Friday, June 19, 2015

Red Flannel Hash - New Dispatches from Maine

Someone yells “hash is ready” and I am usually the first to sit down at the table.  I love hash.  Corned beef hash, roast beef hash . . . call it hash and I am there.  But I never heard of red flannel hash until I first came to Maine almost three decades ago.  But I am glad I did, and despite some initial reservations about this local variant, I still come running. 

The etymology of the term “hash” goes back to the French “hacher” . . . to chop.  Like any good hash, it tastes best when made from leftovers and whatever else you might have handy.  In this instance, it is a motley of onion, diced potato, corned beef, with some salt and pepper to taste.  The “red flannel” come with the addition of chopped beets.  Top it off with a couple fried or poached eggs and you are done.  I am not a big fan of beets, mind you, but it works here and I am not exactly sure why.  It tastes good and so I don’t ask too many questions.

I have heard a couple tales on the origins of the name.  Some say it goes back to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution.  Supposedly they were so hungry one winter that they chopped up their red flannels to add to their scarce potatoes.  I guess hunger trumped warmth.  Another tale tells how a cook in a mining camp, suspecting her husband was stepping out on her, ground up his red flannel long johns and added them to the morning hash.   It turned out he and the others liked the stuff so much they asked to have the bright red hash every morning.  Having dispatched her errant husband’s only red flannels, she substituted beets after that.  I wonder whether he ever questioned the disappearance of his skivvies?  A good hash can make one forget his or her woes.  That must be it.  These make for entertaining tales, but the origins of Red Flannel Hash is, I am sorry to say, far more pedestrian.

Apparently The New York Times published a recipe for Red Flannel Hash in its October 25, 1943 edition under the title “Dish of Infinite Variety.”  It almost immediately drew fire from some of its readers.  One complained that the war would surely be lost “if the noble American dish of red flannel hash be fallen to the low estate set forth by your editorial . . .”, adding that the dish originated with the “never-to-be-forgotten institution, the New England Boiled Dinner!”   The ingredients were simple; one took the boiled dinner left-overs – “potatoes opalescently colored and lusciously flavored by a mixture of juices; beets, red and enticing; and a few golden carrots” – and chopped them up (but not too fine) “and warm them to a turn with a discreet use of the pot liquor.”  Another reader wondered “in what isolated corner of New England did you find the recipe published for red flannel hash?  Or were you simply fishing for the real recipe to replace the parody you gave?”  The dish was once again attributed to a boiled dinner – “corned beef and cabbage to New Yorkers” – and included “beets, carrots, turnip, cabbage and potatoes with the corned beef. The hash is the clean-up meal. It is correctly made of 50 per cent potatoes, 25 per cent corned beef and 25 per cent beets.”
Once chopped everything was fried in bacon fat in an iron skillet “and you have a dish for the gods, whether it be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper.”
As fussy as Mainiacs are about their Italian Sandwiches (see my June 17, 2015 posting), the same goes for their Red Flannel Hash.  Some say it is only for breakfast and must be served with a fried or poached egg.  Others will insist it is a supper dish served with a side dish such as cole slaw, baked beans, or cornbread.  Still others will insist it can be served anywhere and at any time.  I tend to side with the latter.  And whereas Worcestershire sauce is frequently added to American Chop Suey (see my June 18 posting), Red Flannel Hash can be enhanced with a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Some will fry it in oil or bacon fat while others will add a dollop of sour cream just as you would to a bowl of borscht (beet soup).  Some like it soft and mushy and others fried crispy.

Strictly speaking, Red Flannel Hash is not unique to Maine; you can find it just about anywhere in northern New England.  But it was here in Maine where I first encountered it and so I consider it local fare.  My nose tends to go up when beets are offered to me; I would almost prefer my flannel long johns to beets.  Still, they work well in hash for some reason.  And I do love borscht, so what can I tell you?   The mysteries of life.

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