Discovering Rice Grits & the New Southern Food Culture with Chef Hugh Acheson

bags of grits

There’s much ado about heirloom crops, which promote genetic diversity. Acclaimed chef and author Hugh Acheson wants you to eat them- and rice grits, in particular- because they’re about more than just mere sustenance.

To be honest, before last June, the only thing I knew about Hugh Acheson, chef/partner of Athens, Georgia’s, Five and Ten, and The National, and Atlanta’s Empire State South, is that he has one hell of a unibrow (well-documented), and that his intensity as a part-time judge on “Top Chef” freaked me out. Yet, while attending the 31st annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen this past summer, I was intrigued by a cooking demo Acheson was offering, called “Great Southern Grains.” The focus of the seminar was on the “rice economy and Southern resurgence of a cultural interest in heritage grains [his term for heirloom].” In a nutshell, we were learning about rice grits, and their role in what Acheson calls New Southern cuisine.

I’m a fool for grains; I’ve never met a variety I dislike, be it farro, millet, barley, or buckwheat groats. And now that I’ve seen Acheson as a presenter, I stand corrected, as the James Beard-award-winning Acheson, also a former Food & Wine “Best New Chef,” is my new hero. His vast knowledge about food, including the sociological and anthropological aspects, as well as his intelligence, foresight, and self-deprecating humor (you should hear him talk about his eyebrow), made me completely rethink my baseless former opinion. Do I sound like I have a crush? I do, in that it’s rare to find a chef who is so articulate and down-to-earth.

Hugh Acheson

Image: Galdones Photography

Acheson, a Canadian, moved to the Deep South nearly two decades ago; his fascination with Southern culture has made him a bona-fide expert on the region’s food history. Before the Civil War, the rice economy of states like North Carolina and Georgia were based upon slave labor; it was these African slaves who fully developed the rice culture of the region (As Acheson rightly points out, “Southern food was not created by Southerners; it was created by slaves and slave traders.”). After the war, labor-intensive rice cultivation moved to states like Texas and Arkansas, where it was easier to flood and drain fields.

Rice grits are an heirloom rice with small, “broken” grains; Acheson prepares them in the manner of risotto, adding liquid in small quantities for the grains to absorb. The result is a delicate, creamy dish that takes well to all manner of cooked vegetables or meats, or can be used in desserts, or a breakfast food as you would regular grits or polenta. The rice grits espoused by the chef are a variety called Carolina Gold rice, which is regaining its popularity and being cultivated by regional family farms thanks to the persistence of chefs like Acheson, who don’t want to see a monoculture destroy the historical or agricultural legacy of the South. Acheson and fellow Southern chefs like Sean Brock of Charleston’s Husk have been instrumental in helping to revive and make relevant family farms, as the demand for specialty produce, meat, and poultry grows.

“Rice grits are one of the defining grains of the New South, to me; I have very strong opinions about Southern food for a Canadian,” jokes Acheson. “It’s not greasy buckets of fried chicken; that’s only been the fast food culture of the last 50 years. If we make fresh, wholesome food available to our kids, that culture of heritage foods, home cooking, will be there for the next generation. If we don’t, we’ll continue to poison the well as we have been for the last few generations.”

bowl of grits

Image: Adrianne Behning Photography

As Acheson pointed out, the “New South” is one largely comprised of new ethnic groups, most notably Koreans and other Asian immigrants. For his demo, he prepared a dish that he feels is representative of this new food culture: Rice grits with kimchi and pork belly, and quick-pickled scallion and radish (see recipe below). The dish is garnished with local roasted peanuts, in a nod to both Southern and Asian influences. When it comes to sourcing ingredients, says Acheson, “I’m not a zealot, but I feel that “farm-to-table has become too much of a marketing term. I prefer to say I cook from my community. It’s just what we do.”

Try Acheson’s comforting fall recipe for rice (grit) pudding with butternut squash and sweet milk tea.

Save the date! The 2014 FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen will be held June 20-22.

Top image: robholland

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