EDITOR'S NOTE: "Stop Where the Parking Lot's Full" is a column that appears in each issue of Sandlapper Magazine, featuring wonderful dining venues across the Palmetto State. Here's an example. If you find it interesting, you may want to peruse our back issue listings for information about previous columns.
"What's the best thing here?" I asked, ducking into her itty-bitty cupboard of a place next to the railroad tracks. "Me," she boomed back. "And I smell the best, too."
I love this woman. I'm not alone. Much of Greenwood comes here for a hot dog, hamburger, cheeseburger or steaming bowl of hash. All that is pretty cheap, but talking to Miss Ruth is free. And that makes lunch at The Hash House pretty darn priceless.
"It's conversation with your meal, and you don't get that everywhere," said Scott Gaines, a Lander University student who was drawn to The Hash House by the sign on top of the building. "I knew it had been here a long time and had tradition."
That's for sure. Miss Ruth is 70 now, and she's been making hot dogs since she was 9. She worked with her mother Sarah Ivester, who made Greenwood's first cheeseburger in 1934. Ivester's Drive-In was famous, serving minced barbecue, chicken stew and burgers to townspeople and draftees in the Second World War. Today, The Hash House is a miniature version of Ivester's, more like a cozy train car than a '40s restaurant. But the four items on the menu are just as good as ever, and Miss Ruth as salty-sweet.
"I sure am glad you got to see me," she told two customers on the way out. Miss Ruth is one to let you pour your own tea and make your own change. She doesn't accept tips because she knows some people can't afford to leave them, and she's famous for the turkeys she smokes and gives away at Christmas. She'll ask about your mama in one breath and correct your manners in the next. At The Hash House, you need to be on your best behavior.
"I don't care if you're the chief or the judge, when you come in here, you're in my jurisdiction," she said. Some of her rules are not having more than one Coke because that's bad for your kidneys and not wearing a cap at the table - though it's acceptable at the counter. You want to be careful with your napkins, too; Miss Ruth doesn't like to waste them. "I was raised up under the Depression. I'm not tight; I'm just conservative."
Because The Hash House is so small - two tables and five stools at the counter - much of its business is take-out. "This is the first place I hit when I come home," said Brenda Chapman Taratus, in town from Jacksonville, FL, for a wedding. She unloaded her luggage a half hour ago and immediately headed to The Hash House to get lunch for her family. Brenda has tried to talk Miss Ruth into opening a Hash House Two in Jacksonville, but no luck yet. She hoisted her heavy bag of cheeseburgers and 12 quarts of hash. "Honey, when I leave here I'm thinking about those cheeseburgers."
Miss Ruth likes to point out that her burgers are the real thing, not soy. The chili recipe is her father's; it's Greek and more than 100 years old. The hot dogs are the "best Greenwood Packing has." Says Miss Ruth: "I put a lot of tender loving care in my hot dogs. And I beat the devil out of the hash."
In other words, she doesn't grind her hash but beats it with a big paddle in her 100-gallon "historical hash pot," a 1930s model from Greenwood Packing Plant. Errant children are told they'll be put in there if they don't behave. In Greenwood, Miss Ruth and her mother were the only women to make hash, she said.
Two men were hunched over bowls of it. Bill Hart took his with three slices of white bread, Roy Whitt with two - and plenty of Texas Pete. "You gotta doctor it up," he said, ribbing Miss Ruth. "You don't think I'm gonna eat it like she cooked it!"
"Be quiet! I'm telling jokes," she snapped back.
Roy and Bill are some of Miss Ruth's many fans. Bill, retired from the gas company, made it a point to check her heater. Roy just bent over his bowl and said, "We wouldn't bring our kids here. They don't know what good eatin' is."
The Hash House may be the smallest restaurant in South Carolina, and in Greenwood, the oldest one operating with the same family in charge. Because it's so small, Miss Ruth never had more than one person to help. For years, it was her husband P.C., who died in 1993.
Nudged like it is by the railroad tracks, The Hash House always has been popular with train-folk. Engineers once gave her a hard hat, which she puts on every time a train comes by. There's nothing quite like the sight of Miss Ruth Polattie, head and shoulders out the window, waving as a train goes by.
People from Europe have been to The Hash House and so has the occasional celebrity. Actor Bo Hopkins, from nearby Ware Shoals, pops in now and then. Robert Tinsley, public defender for Green-wood and Abbeville counties, said if he were run-ning for office, he'd pick The Hash House for his campaign headquarters. "You can see everybody from your preacher to your doctor," Tinsley said. "Judges, politicians, professors. . . ."
"Prisoners," Miss Ruth added.
No doubt they all appreciate what The Hash House offers: simple food at great prices. A cheeseburger is $2.05, a hot dog 90 cents. But the main attraction must be Miss Ruth, who will let you know she doesn't like it when you don't clean your plate. "If she took the time to cook it, you take the time to eat it," said Chuck Watson, her lawyer and devoted customer.
Miss Ruth's health has been up and down in the past few years, and she asked me to mention all her doctors because they've helped her so much. I'm obliging her, mainly because you can't say no to Miss Ruth and because that was the best hot dog I've ever had. The good doctors are Giles Schanen and Floyd Hatcher in Greenwood and S. Terrell Smith and Philip Kinder in Columbia.
Take care of her, please.
The Hash House, 614 E. Cambridge, Greenwood; (864) 223-2614. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Smoking allowed.