Friday, January 27, 2012

Cooking Like a Granny Woman

Southern cooking has certainly been in the news lately. One of the hot names on the Southern scene these days is Hugh Acheson. I jokingly call him my chef crush. If you watch Top Chef, you no doubt know who he is. He’s the self-deprecating, tattooed Canadian turned Southern chef and a judge this season on the show. 

Hugh started to gain national attention in the early 2000s when he opened his first restaurant, Five and Ten, in Athens, Georgia. Really, his cooking put Athens on the culinary map. Atlanta restaurant critics were so smitten that the Atlanta Journal & Constitution named Five and Ten the 2007 Restaurant of the Year – even though Athens is 70 miles away. The James Beard folks were pretty smitten, too. Since then, Hugh and his partners have opened up a wine shop and two other restaurants – the National in Athens, and Empire State South in Atlanta. Hugh has also recently published a cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen.

Hugh and his wife Mary, A New Turn in the South

I was thrilled to receive a copy to review a few months ago. Much to my delight, it is a sturdy hardback chocked full of recipes and gorgeous photos. I’m a sucker for pretty cookbooks – and this one is pretty. It also features Hugh’s handwriting, quirky illustrations and just generally funny commentary. For instance, the preface to his cornbread recipe: “Cornbread should not have sugar in it. That’s cake.” To me, the cookbook represents everything I believe Southern cooking should be – based on fresh, local, quality ingredients that are simply prepared, inventive, but with a nod to tradition.

Recently, Hugh wrote a piece for CNN’s Eatocracy in response to the Paula Deen hoopla where he provides the best definition of Southern food I’ve come across lately:
Southern food is a celebration of the people within the community, using the agrarian bounty that is constantly around them. It pays homage to the past but is a constantly evolving, ebbing with the seasons and flowing with the constant progression of the South. It is a foodways that really has had a much stronger emphasis on vegetables and sides than huge portions of proteins, and one that is healthy if we show off the diversity of our crops and cooking styles.
As to claims that Southern food is inherently unhealthy, he responds: “Southern food did not make the South unhealthy, rather a broken arrow of cookery did, one that is ultra-processed, trans fat laden, lard fried, and massively caloric. That’s not how I eat, and I eat Southern food pretty much every day of my life.”

Preach it, Hugh! If you flip through one of my favorite rag-tagged old church cookbooks, and you can witness the broken arrow of cookery. There are recipes for chicken and dressing that call for whole hen, a pone of cornbread and cold biscuits – but there are even more casserole recipes that call for canned chicken, canned condensed soup and other pre-packaged ingredients. What happened? The short answer – we’ve left the farm, become disconnected from seasonality, been sucked into a messed up food economy where a bag of chips is cheaper than a bag of potatoes, had our taste buds dulled by too much sugar and salt in processed foods, and, most of all, fallen for mass-marketing’s message: “You don’t have time to cook.”

Lest some accuse me of being a food snob, I have been known to heat up a frozen pizza from time to time. However, as we begin this new year, I’m trying to be more conscientious.  My new mantra: “Cook like a Granny woman.” Where I grew up, Granny was not a derogatory term. A "Granny woman" was not just a grandmother, they were the pillars of the community. Before the age of Google, they were the go-to people for any practical question. Questions like, “How do you skin a chicken?” or “How do you birth a baby?” I was fortunate enough to know three of my great grandmothers. What I remember most about them is the smell of their houses. They had that “old” smell mixed with the lingering aroma of something cooking. 

Maybe the solution to our health problems as a region (and as a nation) is to live the Granny lifestyle.  Yes, Granny cooked with butter, lard and bacon fat. But, Granny worked in the fields, walked three miles to church, did the washing on a scrub board, milked the cows and chopped wood. At the end of a long day, Granny would heat up some beans and cornbread left over from dinner (which was really lunch) and maybe would supplement that with some baked sweet potatoes from the garden and a tall glass of "sweet milk." Nothing fancy, but nothing from a can or mix.

Maybe that’s the key to defining “real” Southern food – local ingredients, simple preparations, and as much as possible, cooked from scratch. Hugh Acheson’s cookbook definitely fits that bill. Granted, Hugh is no granny, but I think most of the recipes in A New Turn in the South would be granny approved. (It’s as if Granny traveled the world and got a little fancy.) The recipes are very approachable for the home cook– Southern classics like deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes with pickled shrimp and fried chicken. However, you’ll also find recipes like Risotto with Okra, Country Ham, Boiled Peanuts and Ramps – dishes that take local ingredients and combine them in ways that are unexpected. I made Hugh’s Sorghum Sweet Potatoes for our “Granny Dinner” last night. I took a leap of faith combining jalepeno with syrup and orange zest, but I have to say it was delicious. That’s the kind of cooking he does. Seasonal, homey, but full of surprises.

Our "Granny meal" - boiled cabbage, cornbread and Hugh's sweet potatoes

Sorghum Sweet Potatoes
From A New Turn in the South by Hugh Acheson, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2011

3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 red jalepeno chile, minced (I used one piece of pickled jalepeno because it’s all I had and I didn’t want it too spicy for the kids)
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
½ cup heavy cream (I used 2 percent milk and a little half and half to lighten it a bit)
¼ cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons sorghum or maple syrup
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Place the sweet potatoes in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, season with ½ teaspoon of the salt, and cook until tender. While the sweet potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan and when the butter bubbles and froths, add the jalepeno and the orange zest. Cook for 1 minute, turn off the heat, and then add the cream. Set aside.

When the sweet potatoes are fork tender, drain them in a colander set up in your sink. Let them drain completely and then pass them through a ricer or mash them well with a potato masher. Add the flavored cream, chicken stock, sorghum, nutmeg and remaining salt. Mix well and transfer to a nice serving bowl.


  1. I love this post! My favorite quotes are “Cornbread should not have sugar in it. That’s cake.” and "fallen for mass-marketing’s message: “You don’t have time to cook.” I've linked to this post and "Paula and the Pound Cake" from my site. Preach it Rachel!

    1. Thanks so much, Kathy! I look forward to checking out your site!