Writer and journalist John Egerton has died. Egerton delved into Southern culture, both the good and the troubling. His writing looked head-on at matters of race and injustice, but he also tried to find common ground through food and the culture of the kitchen table.
Egerton was born in Atlanta and raised in Kentucky in the years just before the struggle for Civil Rights erupted. As it did he found his career, writing in Nashville for a magazine called the Race Relations Reporter.
Those experiences shaped Egerton’s most significant book. Speak Now Against the Day chronicled the missed opportunities for progress in the time just prior to the movement.
Speaking last year at Nashville Public Library, Egerton said he wanted the book to sound “like something your grandfather could tell you on the porch,” and the region’s key figures weren’t enough. He had to draw on personal memories, too. Or, as he put it, “I had to find someone to tell the story, and it ended up having to be me.”
John T. Edge remembers Egerton as a someone who valued the people’s history of the South as the region’s “powerful fabric.” Together, they founded the Southern Foodways Alliance, which was borne in part out of Egerton’s hope for the region. Egerton talked about biscuits and spoonbread as a cultural touchstone that all Southerners share, black or white, rich or poor. “Bread in the South is hot,” he said calling Southerners a hot people from a hot region. “All of the rest of the world has cold bread. That’s why we’re different.”
John Egerton died of a heart attack in Nashville Thursday morning. He was 78 years old.
Southern food at its most appealing is surprisingly simple, relatively inexpensive, and inclusive rather than exclusive. It is suffused with history and continuity. It is integrated food—black and white, soul and country, Creole and Cajun, mountain and coastal, plain and fancy. More than any other remnant of the region’s past, it reflects the reality of good and bad times and the social values of Southerners of all races and classes in every generation. I am convinced that the best Southern food is well worth defending and preserving, not only as one of the few active and continuing examples of the South at its best, but also for the multitude of simple joys and pleasures it still delivers.