Hugh Acheson didn't invent canning, but he's revolutionized it. The high priest of pickling has been jarring up fresh takes on classic flavors since he started his first restaurant 5 & 10 in Athens, Georgia, and has brought new attention to a Southern artform. Now, he's hoping to spread his love for canning even further with Pick a Pickle, a cookbooklet that's small and sturdy enough to stand by the stove (wipeable pages!) but brimming with all the information you need to start puttin' up.
Hugh Acheson talked with us about how he started canning and why he thinks you should, too, for National Can-It-Forward Day.
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SL: Have you always been canning since you learned how to cook?
HA: When we started 5 & 10, what 16 years ago now, I remember starting to can a lot then, putting up a lot of pickles. I think it started because of sincere dedication to wanting to make everything from scratch in an area that had lost track of making food from scratch, so canning just became this good way of preserving what was coming up. I think that was really the culmination of the excitement of canning.
Did you make Pick and Pickle utilitarian so people would really use it?
You can pretty much wash down the pages. My favorite cookbooks, my office is filled with thousands of cookbooks, but there’s a smaller shelf in our kitchen of some of the ones we actually pull out and use everyday that sort of become the well-worn pieces, but I think that this is one of those books.
What's your locker room speech for someone who wants to start canning but is worried they'll end up with a hot mess?
Unfortunately food television and really complex cookbooks that are really more art than substance have put this big barrier between the regular Americans who want to get back into cooking and actual cooking, and you just have to realize cooking is not difficult.
Canning is particularly just a gateway to cooking more, and when we talk about cooking and canning in your kitchen it means more time with your family, more time spent in the environment that you want to be in. It's just kind of a rekindling of a relationship with your immediate community, which is your family and a bigger community, your farmers market and the hardware store where you buy your jars. I don’t think anyone is going to lament spending a couple extra hours in their kitchen at the end of their lives.
What should people down South be taking advantage of for canning right now?
Jeez, right now, it’s a bountiful time. Yellow wax beans, snap peas, it's great time to pickle all those. Okra is just abundant right now and beautiful. You get that nice burgundy okra and bright green okra and those are great for the long term.
The whole acid profile palate of a pickle sort of encompasses what I love about brightness in food. The pickles bring all that to it, so I love that whole flavor profile and I'm very happy to see it so popular right now.
Should people pick produce differently for canning than they would for cooking?
I think peaches are a classic example. For pickled peaches you’re going to want to get peaches that are pretty firm still or else you’re going to make pickled peach jam pretty quickly. So I think just verging on ripeness versus fully ripe.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve pickled that you think other people should try?
A lot of stems are good, so chard stems are great, collard green stems, turnip stems. A lot of that ends up in the compost pile but it makes a really good pickle. They look really beautiful, they’re bright, you can sort of do them as a chow chow spice profile, and they’re great.
What’s your pickling playlist?
We listen to a lot of music at home. We generally don’t listen to a lot of music while working at the restaurant. It’s a little distracting. I have a very eclectic taste in music. These days listening to a lot of Against Me!, Jason Isbell and a lot of old Joe Cocker.
Have you seen "We Can Pickle That" from Portlandia?
I’ve actually never seen that one, I’ve seen a number of their sketches but never that one, but I’ve definitely heard about it. Those two are amazingly hilarious