An interview with Ashley English, author of Southern from Scratch
March 4, 2018
What inspired you to write a cookbook about Southern cooking from scratch? How does it fit in with your other books?
In conversation about potential topics for my next book with Roost, my editor, Jenn Urban-Brown, suggested a book about southern preserving. I’m a lifelong Southerner, and have written other books on homemade preserves and handcrafted foods, so the concept totally made sense. I then had the idea of showcasing 50 of what I consider to be staples and basics of southern cooking, from buttermilk to bacon, in the book, and then presenting recipes for taking those basics and rendering them into something new and modern.
What was it like to work with Johnny and Charlotte Autry who photographed and styled the book?
It was such a pleasure to work with another husband and wife team! My husband, Glenn, works with me full-time, (from recipe development to prop shopping, we do it all together), so it was a rare treat to see inside the process and relationship of another working married couple. They’re excellent foils for one another, as are Glenn and I, and I think that accounts for the success of the work they produce. That bit of contrast in personalities (theirs and ours!) helps balance out the creative with the pragmatic. Plus, they’re just lots of fun to be around!
Tell us about your homestead in Asheville, North Carolina. As planting season starts, what are you most excited to grow in your garden and cook with?
We live on 11 acres in a forested cove, about a mile down a dirt road, directly beside a 300 acre nature preserve. It’s super private and secluded, but only 20 minutes from all of the amenities of downtown Asheville, NC, which is such a perfect contrast! Last April, my son Alistair showed up super early, 3 months early, in fact. As a result, with the next 79 days he spent in the NICU of our area hospital, all hopes of keeping a garden growing went out the window. This year, we’re so excited to be back out in the garden! We’ve already planted 6 types of lettuce, English peas, dill, cilantro, parsley, radishes, and spinach. There were some kale, collard, and cabbage plants that overwintered out there, too. I’ve also got starts of pickling cucumbers, slicing cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, heirloom pumpkins, sunflowers, nasturtiums, calendula, zucchini, and yellow crookneck squash growing. I’ll pick up loads of tomato starts from an annual local plant sale I always hit up, and then we’ll be set!
How do you and your husband Glenn work together to develop recipes?
We cook together so often that we’ve really got our recipe development style dialed in. We always start by tossing around ideas on general concept. Are we needing to make something with a particular ingredient? Or are we looking at a specific season? Or maybe we’re creating a brunch dish, those sorts of things, for example. From there, we begin making flavor pairing suggestions, as well as consider what’s available seasonally, either in our garden, at area farmer’s markets, or in the grocery store. Glenn is more of the out of the box, artistic cook while I’m the nuts and bolts, logistics one. Together, we muse and mull things over until we agree on something, then we get in the kitchen and start trying things out! Sometimes we hit a home run straight out of the gate, and other times there’s a good deal of trial and error before we’re pleased with the final recipe.
What are traditions that you have with your community in Asheville?
We’ve developed a reputation for hosting two big annual celebrations. Every December, typically the first weekend of the month, I host a Ladies Cookie Exchange. Loads of women crowd around my dining room table, sip and snack on drinks and nibbles I’ve provided, and then we all swap cookies. It’s a blast! Then, right around Easter, we host an egg-themed potluck, based around “The Good Egg” gathering from my book, Handmade Gatherings. Each guest brings a sweet or savory egg dish to share. There’s always an egg-based craft, as well as candy-filled egg hunt and egg games. These two events bring us so much joy, and have become traditions that Glenn, our sons, and our friends all deeply look forward to.
Will you teach your boys the skills you have cultivated – like cooking, beekeeping, and canning?
Absolutely! I’ve already started introducing my 7 year-old son, Huxley, to chicken-keeping, and gardening, and wild foraging, and cooking, and baking, and preserving food. He knows that his dad and I write about and do these small-scale homesteading and culinary endeavors for our work, as he’s homeschooled and is with us pretty much at all times. He’s learning so much just by being immersed in this lifestyle. I’m looking forward to Alistair getting older and being able to rope him in, too. It brings me immense joy to share these skills with my sons! I tell Huxley frequently that we do all we do for him and his brother, that we’re creating a legacy with our work they’ll inherit, and that it would be fun to work together as a family some day, if they ended up sharing our passions.