The passing of a Southern gentleman
John Egerton died today. I’d like to say a few words.
The New Orleans Times Picayune wrote this: “Egerton’s book, Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History,” published in 1987, is widely considered one of the essential texts on the subject. As much a history and travelogue as it is a cookbook, “Southern Food” has endured as a model for approaching Southern cuisine as an avenue to substantive cultural inquiry.” Couldn’t have said it better.
Through his books and his founding of the Southern Foodways Alliance and his desire to just show up, which is a time-honored Southern tradition, John displayed expertise, humor, thoughtfulness and – above all – kindness. The last time I saw him was at Sam’s B-B-Q in Humboldt, Tennessee. The place had burned down and John came together with other SFA members to rebuild. I believe he was 76 at the time.
The first time I met John was a little surreal. Dave Green, then the managing editor of the Tennessean, wanted to try an experiment. What would happen if you put a long-form writer in the world of quick-form journalists. What would you get? I was his editor. The experiment lasted six months and I learned a few things.
John wrote books. Newspapers publish articles. There was a bit of a gap. I wish I could remember the subject matter John picked, but I can’t. But what I do remember is how he “took the edit,” which is what newspaper folks refer to as how well the writer receives criticism. I would try to be gentle as we whittled down 12,000 words to 3,000, horrendously long in newspaper terms. “Don’t sugar coat it,” he would say. “Just tell me what you think.” John was ten million times more noteworthy than I ever hope to be. But he took the edit. With humility.
I have a copy of Cornbread Nation 1 sitting in front of me right now. John began this series of essays from noted Southern writers about food and culture for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Typically, none of his work is in the volume. He let others shine.
I would see John from time to time through the years. We both lived in Nashville and our worlds met. There was always the warm hug, the heartfelt hand on the shoulder and the query, “So what are you doing these days?”
So I am immeasurably sad that John has passed. Am I imagining him in Heaven right now, breaking bread with Edna Lewis and Craig Claiborne? Oh, absolutely. If you don’t know who any of these beacons of Southern culture and cooking are, please look them up. You will be impressed.
God speed, John. God speed.