Down Home in Georgia
The Canadian-born chef and Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson cooks a Christmas dinner that's inspired by Southern ingredients
It’s doubtful we’ll ever have a white Christmas in Athens, Georgia. When I was growing up in Canada, there was always snow in December, but in the 18 years I’ve lived in the South, snow has been more of an apocalyptic rarity than a seasonal event. We don’t deal with it well; our towns aren’t equipped with a fleet of plows, and our old water oaks can’t bear its downy weight. The tree limbs snap, knocking out power, the streets become littered with abandoned cars, and the grocery stores empty out like in a scene from The Walking Dead. This year brought no such end-of-days anomaly. It was a suitably beige holiday, festive in its own way.
On Christmas morning, I woke up happy but in need of coffee. Nursing a bourbon at 2:00 a.m. while wrapping presents like some part-time Santa made a 7:00 a.m. rise a bit more difficult than normal. At what point would my kids no longer want to challenge darkness with a predawn scramble for gifts, I wondered.
The night before, we had eaten, as we do every Christmas Eve, slow-roasted lamb leg studded with garlic and fragrant with rosemary and mint. It’s an unshakable Acheson family tradition. In some nightmare plague, the locusts could come and devour everything including the plastic Santa outside and the lights hanging on the porch, but we would somehow still be eating succulent lamb. We ate slices carved from the bone, along with roasted endive, smoked sunchokes, roasted potatoes punctuated with my home-pickled ramps, and a simple mâche salad dressed in olive oil, lemon, and champagne vinegar. Then my wife, Mary, and I read A Child’s Christmas in Wales to our daughters, 12-year-old Beatrice and 10-year-old Clementine, tucking them into bed in time to execute the strategic plan of stuffing stockings and forging notes from Santa and his reindeer. Things were properly staged for the morning, right down to fake footprints from the chimney to make our little Southern home look like a CSI Christmas special.
With all this production, I suppose Mary and I might have been a tad disappointed if the kids weren’t revving to go at daybreak. Our own reward would be Christmas dinner. When I was young and still believed in that fat guy with the red suit, Christmas supper at my grandparents’ house in Toronto meant a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, turnips and glazed carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s hard for a Canadian to shake the British influence. My wonderful grandfather, for whom I’m named, would preside over a massive antique table with seating for 24. Plumb full of dishes, it was all the more congested by the bran pie, which was not a pie at all, but a trough of small gifts submerged beneath a mound of dry bran. Each one was tethered to a place setting, so that when you pulled your ribbon, a little present would emerge—as if the morning’s haul hadn’t been sufficient. Here in Athens, we don’t do the bran pie, but we do hunt high and low for quality Christmas crackers, the festive popping devices that are filled with cheap toys, a bad joke, a lottery number, and an ill-fitting paper crown. These little odes to my history are still pretty foreign around here, but my kids now cherish them.
For Christmas Day, the regional larder in Georgia guides my menu. This year, the meal was based around a fresh ham roast, a beautiful cut of meat from my friend Adam Musick, a singer-guitarist from the band Southern Bitch who put his instruments aside to raise what I think is the most stunning pork in America. I roasted the ham slowly and finished it with a mustardy glaze light on sugar, so the pork’s purity shined.
When our guests filtered in, we handed them drinks. Our longtime neighbors John and Heather and their two boys, Owen and Lucas, plus Heather’s mom, Pam, arrived first. Our friend Windy and her kids, Colin, Everett, and Jane, filled the house soon after. There was eggnog—not that processed stuff from the grocery store, but the real thing, a mix of milk, cream, and frothy egg whites spiked with bourbon and rum and dusted with nutmeg. We also made a cognac-and-pomegranate punch because someone once told me that all Christmas parties need a punch, and I couldn’t find fault with that. Oysters graced the table for at least 15 minutes, until oyster-crazed Beatrice bogarted them. They were sizable specimens from Rappahannock River Oysters, with a Chesapeake Bay salinity that sang, especially when topped with a dash of citrusy mignonette and hot sauce.
Fine china, which we never use otherwise, filled every nook and cranny of the table. Wine glasses somehow found a spot. Some of the dishes surrounding the roasted ham had a personal meaning for us. My field pea gratin, a French dish made with Southern ingredients, was an ode both to France and to Birmingham, Alabama-based chef Frank Stitt, for his skillful melding of French and Southern cuisines. Frank has been a strong influence on many of us in the region. This year’s peas, a small white varietal known as zipper cream, were shelled in August by our friends Tim and Alice Mills, whose farm sits on the outskirts of Athens. We froze them in the summer to last through the colder months; they defrosted beautifully. I baked them into a toasty casserole, lush with cream and smoky with country ham. Also of special importance to me was James Beard’s version of carrots Vichy, one of the recipes I read as a kid from cookbooks in my dad’s kitchen. A butter-boiled dish, it’s so simple, yet perfect. We use local Nantes carrots—lovely orange cylinders with such an abundance of natural sugar that they taste like candy. My kids love carrots, but I expected them to take a few bites and hide the rest in their bunched up napkins in anticipation of the real sweets that awaited them in their stockings.
We filled the remainder of the table with more platters of vegetables. Over the years I’ve developed a close relationship with Woodland Gardens, an organic farm in nearby Decatur. The farmers, Celia Barss and John Cooper, focus on heirloom varietals, and as they’ve become one of the most important purveyors for my restaurants, they’ve also stocked our home fridge. This year, Clementine and I visited their winter hoop houses and had the luxury of selecting the perfect produce for our holiday meal. Among our finds were petite Hakurei turnips, their skin so tender that I didn’t even peel them. I roasted them and served them alongside their sautéed greens, with little more than butter and salt as seasoning. Fresh arugula lightly dressed with vinaigrette was a respite from the rich pork and pea gratin. I charred Brussels sprout leaves, sautéing them in very hot olive oil to crisp each one individually. And, lastly, there was leek bread pudding, browned and crunchy on top, creamy in the middle, and aromatic from all those tender sliced alliums.
We ate family style, with the kids at the card table dragged from under a bed and dressed up for the occasion. Our flea-market chairs squeaked every time we laughed. Our cheeks turned rosy from the wine and warmth; it was chilly enough outside to make the inside feel cozy and snug. The kids got just enough savory sustenance to recharge their sweet tooths, and after trading the Christmas cracker surprises, they retired to the living room to enjoy their loot. Too full to move to less noisy seating, the grown-ups relaxed, relieved that the night would bring our usual bedtimes and sleep that would stretch past sunrise.
Finally, the guests started to say their good-nights. After such a long day, Beatrice and Clementine were tuckered out. Their paper crowns sat rumpled on their heads. I sipped a 1994 Graham’s port that Windy had brought, a cellared beauty bequeathed by her recently passed husband, our friend Garrie. What could have been a solemn moment was, instead, one of quiet celebration. It had been a good Christmas and a darned fine meal.