According to Bertis Downs, manager of rock group R.E.M. and author of the forward to A New Turn in the South, Athens, Georgia, was a bit of a culinary wasteland a decade ago. This has changed in recent years, largely due to the influence of chefs like 2007 Rising Star Chef Hugh Acheson. At Five & Ten and The National in Athens and then later at Empire State South in Atlanta, Acheson marries Southern tradition with razor-sharp attention to ingredients, creating wholesome plates of heart-warming food that are sophisticated without being complicated. In his cookbook, Acheson allows home cooks to import a bit of his New South charm into their kitchens.
A native of Ottawa, Acheson did not grow up sitting on a Georgian front porch, sipping on sweet tea and gobbling up peach cobblers. But in spite of, or perhaps due to, this lack of Dixie upbringing, Acheson’s book is populated with Southern delights that go beyond your grandmother’s buttermilk-fried-chicken of yore. Sure, there are traditional dishes aplenty (Fried Okra Salad, Shrimp with Andouille and Hominy Grits, and Duck Liver Dirty Rice make satisfying appearances), but the chef’s produce-driven modern takes on Southern style are the ones we found the most exciting. The Marinated Anchovies with Grapefruit and Pepper, a crowd favorite at Five & Ten, tempts with a surprising flavor combination; Crisp Catfish gets a facelift with Tomato Chutney and Vermouth Emulsion; and Boiled-Peanut Hummus combines the Southeast with the Middle East.
Acheson provides a tantalizing array of standard main courses, such as Bacon-wrapped, Fennel-stuffed Trout with Hot-Pepper Vinaigrette; Fried Chicken with Stewed, Pickled Green Tomatoes; and Smothered Pork Chops with Chanterelles. However, it’s the chapters on appetizers and sides that really caught our eye (the section on pickles should not be overlooked). This comes as no surprise; Acheson alerts his reader early on that “vegetables take a very prominent role, salads and soups abound, sides are prized, and fish and meats are on the simple side.”
The other pillars of the chef’s food philosophy are community and produce, so Acheson comments at length in many recipes on the ingredients, recommending preferred sources (he could easily be a spokesperson for Anson Mills grits or ham-maker Allan Benton) as well as more accessible alternatives. Recipes are accompanied with beautifully photographed dishes, whimsical ingredient diagrams, and the chef’s outlook on topics like community and organic produce. A combination of food for thought and grub for the stomach, this cookbook doubles as a culinary roadmap for where the New South is heading, and we definitely like what we see.