Monday, June 11, 2012

An Incomplete History of Hash Browns.

I meander rather carelessly around the Oxford English Dictionary at times, so it is not surprising that sometimes, something trips me up, and sometimes that something is interesting. Take ‘hash browns’ for example. I found them by accident while I was pottering about and considering the meaning of ‘hash’ in general – and was immediately surprised.

I was surprised because the OED gave the first mention of ‘hash browns’ as being in 1917, or, in their alternative name of ‘hashed brown potatoes’, as appearing first in 1900.  Surely this is a mistake?

‘Hashing’ leftovers is not a new concept by several centuries at least, and it has come up a number of times on this blog in the past. Surely folk have been frying up leftover potatoes as long as they have been boiling too many potatoes, which is probably ever since they have been cooking them, which, in the Old World is since the sixteenth century?  

The defining feature of hash browns seems to be the ‘cake’ or omelet style. Naturally, it goes without saying that the browning is crucial, otherwise they are merely ‘hashed potatoes’ and not nearly so irresistible. When I speak of irresistible of course, I am, referring to the freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked, very hot, very crisp and golden, very potatoe-y version, not the sort that look and taste like dirty bath sponges soaked in grease that are so ubiquitous at breakfast buffets and cafés

The OED is quite definite on the point that hash browns – are ‘chiefly US’ in origin. I guess it depends what you mean by ‘origin’. I think we all agree that recipes are built on previous recipes, and there is a lot about hash browns that is reminiscent of the röesti of Switzerland (which I understand from the purists is made from raw potato), the latkes of the Jewish cookery, and the tortilla de papas of Spain, for example.

In the end, I think that the ‘hash browns’ debate is really (as it so often is in matters of cookery) about the name, not the overall concept.

It does seem correct, however, from my quick reading around the topic (the title of this post warns that this is an incomplete history) that the specific name did originate in the USA. References and recipes using one or other form (hashed brown potatoes, hash browned potatoes, brown hashed potatoes etc) are fairly common in the 1890’s, so I was about to assume that this was when the dish (name) originated, when I found the following recipe from the Minnesota Farmers' Institute Annual of 1835. The journal has hash potatoes (cooked in milk, but not browned), brown hashed potatoes and brown creamed hash potatoes. You will note that the second one is oven-baked.

Brown Hashed Potatoes.
Chop cold boiled potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Put some clarified butter into the frying pan. Add the potatoes, cover, and cook slowly until the potatoes are nicely browned on the underside. Fold and turn out on a warm platter.

Brown Creamed Hashed Potatoes.
Chop four cold boiled potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, together, one tablespoon of butter and a heaping teaspoonful of flour and add to it a cup of milk. Stir until it boils. Put some clarified butter, or fat, in a frying pan, add the potatoes, and pour over them the sauce. Set in the oven, on the floor, and let them bake until a brown crust is formed on the underside. Fold and turn out on a warm platter.

Are there earlier recipes? Did you invent the dish, you Minnesotans?

I now give you the recipes quoted as firsts by the OED.

Hashed Brown Potatoes.
One large boiled potato chopped fine; grease a pan with one tablespoonful of butter and press the potatoes
into it with the palm of your hand. Dust with a little salt and sprinkle over the top one tablespoonful of finely
chopped parsley. Place in the oven and when brown fold like an omelet and serve.
The Complete Cook Book (Philadelphia, 1900), by Jennie Day Reese

Hash-Browned Potatoes
3 cupfuls cooked potatoes, chopped fine.
6 tablespoonfuls milk
1 teaspoonful salt
2 tablespoons butter or drippings
1 teaspoonful salt
¼ teaspoonful salt
Combine all the ingredients except the butter. Melt the latter in a frying pan, add the potato mixture, and
smooth down, pressing it in shape. Cook for a moment over a quick fire and then slowly for twenty minutes,
watching carefully that it does not burn. Then fold as an omelet, pressing the parts together. Turn onto a
heated platter, and serve garnished with parsley and bacon, if it is to serve as a substantial dish.
Mrs. Allen’s Cook Book (Boston, 1917)

This simple dish is infinitely variable of course, and I give you a selection of ideas (all American, you will be pleased to know) to prove my point, and for you to choose your favourite.

Hashed Brown Potatoes.
Try out fat salt pork cut in small cubes, remove scraps; there should be about one-third cup of fat. Add two cups cold boiled potatoes finely chopped, one-eighth teaspoon pepper, and salt if needed. Mix potatoes thoroughly with fat; cook three minutes, stirring constantly; let stand to brown underneath. Fold as an omelet and turn on hot platter.
Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) by Fannie Farmer

And three variations from
Hashed Brown Potatoes
Chop cold boiled potatoes (about two cups) into small bits. Season with salt and pepper. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a pan, add the chopped potatoes and toss and turn frequently until they show brown, then add a half cup of cream and put in a hot oven to brown. Serve hot.
The Neighborhood Cook Book (1914) by the Council of Jewish women.

Hashed Brown Potatoes, Lyonnaise
Finely hash up six cold boiled potatoes and keep on a plate. Heat one tablespoon of butter in a frying-pan, add a finely chopped onion, and lightly brown for three minutes, then add the potatoes. Season with one-half teaspoon of salt and two saltspoons of white pepper, evenly sprinkled over, then nicely brown them for ten minutes, occasionally tossing them meanwhile. Give them a nice omelet form, brown for eight minutes more, turn on a hot dish, sprinkle a little freshly chopped parsley over and serve. These potatoes may be prepared with fat in place of butter.
The International Jewish Cook Book (New York, 1919), by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum.

And a couple of variations from Mrs Allen’s cook book:

Hash-Browned Potatoes with Ham.
3 cupfuls chopped potatoes.
1 cupful milk
1 cupful chopped ham
Few grains salt and pepper.
Mix together the potatoes, ham, milk and seasonings.
Put 3 tablespoonfuls of drippings into a frying pan, melt and, when hot, pack in the potato mixture. Cover and
cook slowly until the milk is absorbed and the mixture is brown on the bottom; fold over and turn as an omelet.
Mrs. Allen’s Cook Book (Boston, 1917)

Hash-Browned Potatoes with Nuts.
Use the proportions included in Hash-Browned Ham Potatoes, substituting chopped peanuts for the ham.
Mrs. Allen’s Cook Book (Boston, 1917)

I am surprised to find at the end of my post that in my excitement I have given you NINE recipes today.

Quotation for the Day.

Peace of mind and a comfortable income are predicted by a dream of eating potatoes in any form.
Ned Ballantyne & Stella Coeli, Your Horoscope and Your Dreams (1940)


Mercy said...

"Potatoes hashed brown" shows up in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel (definitely not for kids) named the Shuttle, published in 1907.

SometimesKate said...

Fried potatoes were a staple of Laura Ingalls Wilder's family, according to the "Little House" books. In fact, according to the "Little House Cook Book", hashed browns were for special occasions. The secret, according to the cook book, was that the cold, leftover potatoes were chopped fine enough that they all stuck together. (The cookbook is less than historically accurate in a few areas, but is a fascinating look into the food so frequently mentioned in Mrs. Wilder's books, and the recipes make it relatively easy to re-create the foods with children.)

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Mercy - and sorry for the late response,I was away for a couple of days and got busy catching up. I dont know that particular novel, but I will certainly get to it now. I love novels with food references, thanks!

Mercy said...

You should be warned, it deals with spousal abuse and attempted rape, very powerfully, in my opinion.

The Old Foodie said...

Might give it a miss in that case, Mercy! It does not sound like bedtime reading. There is enough ugly in the world - I try not to read any grim or depressing stuff these days. No matter how well written

Mercy said...

I can totally understand that!

SPOILERS: The story is about a rich young American woman who goes to England to rescue her sister from her (the sister's) abusive husband. And succeeds.

Dale said...

"Hash", originally from the French "hacher", to cut up. Possibly by way of the Dutch "hachee" which is still the name for a stew made from diced meat.
Just as "hodgepodge" seems to derive from the Dutch
"hutspot" still a popular dish of mixed diced or mashed vegetables.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Clarkson,

I have blogged about your blog! I love this entry in particular -- and your book about pie looks amazing!

I hope it's OK -- I have posted your pie book on my latest entry:


The Old Foodie said...

Thanks bakingnotwriting - I am delighted and honoured!