Book Review: A New Turn in the South by Hugh Acheson

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What does a young man from Ottawa, Canada know about true Southern cuisine? After one look through A New Turn in the South, you’ll come to understand the answer to that question: a whole heck of a lot.

At the age of nineteen, Acheson dropped out of school to begin working in kitchens. In the year 2000, he opened Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia to wide acclaim. Then came the James Beard nominations and two subsequent restaurant openings along with a wine shop. Acheson is a busy man. And a successful man. In 2002 he was on the cover of Food and Wine Magazine as one of their “Best New Chefs in America”.

Hugh Acheson’s approach to cooking is all about comfort and community: he believes in creating food with a sense of history and place, but food that you want to eat. That you’re excited to eat. And that you’ll feel good about eating because it comes from local vendors, farmers and producers. As he says in the introduction to his book, “Southern food presents a special challenge for me: to interpret its nuances, always with respect for the traditions, the land, and the history that fostered it. So this is the food I cook in the South.”

So it’s all about interpretation. Because Acheson’s earlier career was steeped in French cuisine, you’ll see that influence here. You’ll see a bit of irreverence, humor, and refined innovation. You’ll see something you haven’t seen much of before, and that’s why I’ve come to love this book. I think you will, too.

Title and Publisher: A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen by Hugh Acheson with photographs by Rinne Allen. Published by Clarkson Potter, 2011.

First Impressions: My first impression is centered around the aesthetics of the book. It’s a highly visual journey, from the in-your-face photographs done by Athens-based photographer Rinne Allen to the whimsical sketches of a select few dishes and ingredients. There is a noticeable lack of the expected Southern recipes; instead, there is a refreshing, modern, and approachable twist to food you’re going to be excited to make.

The Angle: This book is geared towards home cooks. While recipes like Brunswick Stew have an intimidating list of ingredients, most of the recipes here are relatively simple and straight-forward and written to inspire rather than intimidate. I would say that the Angle is also a bit younger; you will notice this with chapters dedicated to “Snackies” or “Things With Wings.”

The Recipes: The recipe categories are arranged logically with quirky names such as Vegetables, Grains and Taters or Whipped Cream & Other Delights. You won’t find your typical Meats, Vegetables, Fish delineation here. There are roughly 10-15 recipes in each section, with headnotes that aim to educate (what’s a cardoon?), speak to the seasonality of a dish or why Acheson is particularly drawn to it.

Other Stuff: In addition to the recipes, there are brief interludes where Acheson takes a moment to define something or elaborate on it. For example, he’ll write a quick ode to spring ramps and carrots or write a few paragraphs on vinegar, suggesting: “Let’s chat about balsamic vinegar for a moment.” These asides give the reader the sense they’re just hanging in Acheson’s kitchen, sitting on the counter with their legs dangling down. It’s conversational and casual yet informative and interesting.

Overall Impressions: This is a charming book. I feel not only like I can cook from it easily, but that I’m dying to plan a trip to Athens, Georgia. In this way, Acheson has succeeded in truly capturing the spirit of a place. With this book, Athens comes alive. And until I can plan a visit, I will remain content making collard greens, watermelon salad, and fried okra.

Recommended? Absolutely. This book is perfect for someone just beginning to dip their feet into the vast waters of Southern cookery. But it’s also a book for the more seasoned cook who is looking for heightened inspiration and a new approach. Everyone will find something here.

Recipes for Right Now: Butter Braised Cabbage with Carraway, Tomato Chutney, Gingered Pickled Carrots, Bacon-Wrapped Fennel-Stuffed Trout, Pear and Pecan Flip Cake, Sticky Date Pudding.

Buy the Book: A New Turn in the South: Southern Favors Reinvented for Your Kitchen by Hugh Acheson. Amazon, $23

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