Canadian expat Hugh Acheson has accomplished much since moving to Georgia fourteen years ago, after an early career cooking in Ottawa, Montreal and San Francisco. He is the proprietor of four restaurants: 5 & 10, The National, and the just opened Cinco y Diez in Athens, and Empire State South in Atlanta. He’s won James Beard awards for both being a chef and the author of the cookbook A New Turn in the South. He also regularly appears on the US Top Chef and Top Chef Masters as a judge.
So, what does a successful chef at the peak of his powers, and at the centre of a growing hospitality empire do for a follow up to his celebrated first cookbook? Does he go the route of Ducasse and write a version of La Grand Livre de Cuisine? Nope. Does he recruit a Hollywood starlet companion to write a book about travels in an exotic (and, of course, expensive) location? Nope. Does he create a sort of board book collection of flash cards with 50 recipes for pickles, which looks a bit like it was put together to be sold at a tourist gift shop? Yes, he does. And it’s really cool.
In an era when super chefs are publishing enormous and expensive multi-volume manuals that celebrate their brilliance and tortured creativity, Pick a Pickle is a refreshing change. Priced under $20, it’s a playful collection of 50 recipes for pickles and condiments. Pick a Pickle is a “swatchbook”. It’s bound by a single peg in its bottom right corner so the stiff, laminated ‘pages’ fan out. I spoke to Acheson on the phone from Georgia about the “non-traditional book” which is set to be on the shelves by March 25. He describes it as “approachable”, which is also an apt description of the friendly and good humoured man I encountered on the end of the line. If you took all the elements of Canadian politesse and fused it with the tradition of the Southern gentleman, I think you would end up with a creature very much like Hugh Acheson.
Acheson explained that as the nature of his work changed over the last few years, he has spent more time cooking at home, and the book is a reflection of that. He’s the father of two daughters, aged 9 and 11, and Pick a Pickle’s collection of recipes, from chowchow to pickled cherries, encourage family participation. “We’ve forgotten how to cook,” he lamented, adding that the act preserving fruits and vegetables, as they are picked in season, “purifies us somehow.”
The format, Acheson explained, came by when he noticed his publisher had done a similar swatchbook for a collection of cocktail recipes. He liked the utilitarian, no nonsense format and thought it would be perfect for the pickles book he wanted very much to write. Nevertheless, the restrictive format isn’t quite all business: the first few lines of each of the four chapters (Pickling Liquids, Classic Pickles, Classic Condiments, and Fermentation) are wry and quietly funny. Take his introduction to condiments:
When we open our refrigerators, we all encounter the same malaise: condiments from years past line the shelves. I suggest throwing them out in favor of a great beer selection and making four or five of your own condiments that tell a story about your place and the seasons. Condiments should be versatile and provide a boost to your meal. Go on, get back in the kitchen!
Acheson’s place is now mostly the Southern United States, but he keeps his connection to Canada with a family cottage north of Toronto. He brought that up to demonstrate that his book can be used and applied anywhere. Indeed, while there are nods to Southern foodways, like pickled okra, the recipes by and large could be sourced from any farmers market across North America.
While Acheson’s book is meticulous on the correct techniques of sterilizing jars and the like, he thinks our modern preoccupation with food safety is overblown. “People need to stop being terrified of food,” he said, adding that hoped Pick a Pickle would inspire us all to get to know our food in a whole new way.
Look for Pick a Pickle on March 25 at your local, independent cookbook seller, like Good Egg in Kensington Market, or wherever else books about food are sold.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the company that publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley