Edition 11 — Portrait of a Hash Brown

📣 The potato dish that can't stop, won't stop. Hash browns have taken a long journey across cultures to be the brunch staple we know them as today.

If you were stuck on a desert island in a hypothetical world where weight gain and high cholesterol didn’t exist, what one food would you choose to eat for the rest of your life? There is only one sane response to this reasonable question, and that is — hash browns. I unabashedly love hash browns, and I know others do, too. It occurred to me recently that although I love hash browns, I didn’t really know their origin story. So I did some research and was delighted with what I found. Turns out, hash browns have taken a long journey across cultures to become the brunch staple we know them as today.

Humble roots

Many credible accounts claim potatoes were a catalyst for the rise of the Western world. Pomme de terre’s have reportedly changed the face of agriculture and even shaped fashion. Marie Antoinette was so taken by potato flowers, she took to putting them in her hair. Her hubby, Louis XVI put potato flowers in his buttonhole and before you know it the entire French Aristocracy followed suit.

Our collective obsession with spuds and the many forms they take (baked, mashed, fried, chopped thinly, boiled, chopped thickly, shredded, etc) unites our cultures and nations more than we might think. What truly binds our connection though, is thanks to one particular type of potato dish. That is, the humble hash brown.

According to Tastewise, the annual growth of hash brown consumptions in 2020 was 27.9%. I personally did not see this checkbox on my Census form, but as a digital native, I trust generalised online analytics. Based on 4971 interviews between January and March 2021, YouGov rated 81% of their sample population as having a positive opinion of hash browns. The same data set revealed hash browns to be most popular with Gen-X men, closely followed by millennial females (me).

To make a hash brown it takes potatoes, oil, salt, a little pepper, and fat. In using so few ingredients, hash browns truly encapsulate all that is magnificent about spuds. Their crunchy, fat-saturated golden shell is everything that an iconic comfort dish should be: delicious and a little bit naughty. Their inner world is even richer. Flaky, creamy, tasty, and bland enough to really let the fried qualities speak for themselves.

Blended cultures

If you were to Google ‘who invented hash browns’ as I did, you would find there are a lot of sites that claim they landed on our plates in 1887. Specifically, after Maria Parloa wrote a recipe for them in her book that year, Kitchen Companion. Although I don’t doubt Ms Parloa contributed to the fame and glory of hash browns, I was convinced their history was older than 1887. Curious, I followed the thread back further in time to see where it led.

Hash browns take many shapes and serving sizes. The Swiss are famed for their ‘rösti’ which literally means ‘crisp and golden.’ Sheer poetry. ‘Latkes’ are iconic potato pancakes in Jewish cooking. In Russia, ‘draniki’s’ are served with sour cream, garlic sauce, and berries. Drool. ‘Draniki’ translates to ‘grated.’ Brazilians, who are known for living boldly, took Swiss rösti and stuffed it with interchangeable fillings ranging from cheese to sausage. The resulting dish? ‘Batata suíça’, which directly translates to ‘Swiss potato.’

A quick glance at the history of food reveals that numerous food cultures have a version of shredded, fried potatoes. In my research, it became apparent that the origin of hash browns is blended and diverse. In a time before border control and immigration laws, food was a currency of choice that cultural groups took with them when they colonised, exiled, or harshly divided. The history of hash browns is a brutal and tragic love story that melded worlds and highlights the unjust cruelties of historical life on earth.

After the Spanish introduced potatoes to the Americas in the second half of the 16th century, the popularity of potatoes grew and grew. A century later, they had found their way to German-speaking Switzerland. The Internet credits farmers in Bern for making rösti their dish of choice. A loaded plate of grated, fried potatoes was a worthy reward for farmers after laborious days in cold fields. From here, rösti expanded to be the literal golden child it is today.

Meanwhile, another hundred years passes and a series of wheat crop failures in the Ukraine and Poland leads to increased cheap-and-easy-to-grow potatoes being planted. Jewish communities up until this point, made latkes with cheese. However, due to the abundance of potatoes at the time, replace cheese with spuds. In 1492, before the Spanish migrated to the Americas taking potatoes with them, they banished Jewish communities from Sicily. Forced to migrate north, these communities travelled to Rome and took their cheese latkes with them, which is how ricotta cheese arrived in Northern Italy. A little further east, Belarus neighbours Poland and Russia. Proximity to an abundance of potatoes, probably explains the boom of dranikis in 19th century Belarus.

Hash browns = self-care

Hash browns have evolved through exile, famine, and diaspora. Therefore, it makes sense that they are associated with comfort food. Ergo, in today’s world, cooking, buying, or eating hash browns is, in a way, the ultimate act of self-care. Are you with me? Are you in need of self-care right now? Let me help you with that:

Take 4 medium-sized, floury potatoes.
1 beaten egg.
Salt and pepper to season.
Vegetable oil for frying your hashies.

Grate the potatoes.

Once grated, place them on a tea towel and squeeze out excess fluid.

Place the grated potatoes in a bowl, and add in the egg along with salt and pepper to season.

Mix to your little heart’s content.

Heat up a generous amount of vegetable oil in a frypan.

Once the oil is hot, spoon in dollops of the mixture that are roughly 1cm thick.

Fry for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown, before flipping and repeating on the other side.

As you enjoy your hash browns, thank those who came before you for passing hash brown lore along. 🥔 🍴

Image via Bon Appetit

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