John Egerton recalled as a traditionalist and progressive who honored Southern foodways

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John Egerton at the 2005 SFA Symposium, with (left) New Orleans writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie, author of the Treme cookbook, and (right) John Currence, who will be in town this weekend. - PHOTO BY KATE MEDLEY

News of the death Thursday morning of Southern journalist John Egerton, 78, an eloquent civil rights historian and co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), deeply affected his many friends and admirers in the Triangle.

"I feel as though a great tree has fallen," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, an early SFA president who teaches about Southern food and culture at UNC. "He was a wise man who truly understood the American South. He recognized that food could tell the story of social justice in a way that honored everyone at the table."

Ferris, author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, still refers students to Egerton's groundbreaking 1995 book, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. She also introduces them to its predecessor, the influential 1987 Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, which urged Southerners to take pride in their traditional foodways. Both were published by UNC Press.

"His work was transformative. He was both a traditionalist and a progressive, a man with great vision for social justice. He was clear that there was no point in creating an organization like SFA to mythologize or dance around the edges," adds Ferris, noting that Egerton later became concerned about the "fancification" of Southern food through celebrity chefs. "The people's food was John's food. He was very supportive of young chefs who worked hard to uphold the core traditions of simple home cooking and the meat-and-three cafes."

Raleigh's Ashley Christensen was one of such chef. She treasures the memory of having lunch with Egerton a year or so ago at the celebrated Arnold's Country Kitchen in Nashville with local chefs Tyler Brown and Tandy Wilson. Later than night, he joined them at an SFA fundraiser.

"He pulled me aside at the event to tell me how important the work that we were doing was. I was physically warmed over with pride and inspiration," Christensen says. "He was the kind of man who took the time to say what needed to be said and recognized the importance of the gesture. His words and his work will continue to inspire many, myself included. He will be deeply missed and continuously celebrated in the many subjects to which he brought light."

Nancie McDermott, author of Southern Cakes and Southern Pies, is the founder of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina, a group that meets monthly at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. "The food of the South won't taste quite right for a little while, because he brought so much to the kitchen and the table," she wrote on the CHOP NC website. She hailed Egerton as "a scholar, historian, writer and gatherer of people with whom to lift it up, explore it, celebrate it and nourish it in every way."

Bill Smith of Crook's Corner, a longtime member of the SFA board, recalls Egerton's humor and generosity. While visiting Nashville in 2007 on a book tour, he was surprised when Egerton dropped by to support him.
"He hardly knew me at all back then, but he made a point of coming to my event and bringing all his friends. He was so very kind to me," he says. "Later I got to know him better and really admired him as a brilliant academic, a true intellectual and dogged Southern liberal. During the Bush years, we'd call each other and have these 'give 'em hell' pep talks."

Ben Barker, who formerly operated Magnolia Grill in Durham with his wife Karen, says his friend was "the 'moral compass' of the SFA, constantly reminding us of our responsibility to remain inclusive and progressive, passionate and humble. He was a powerful scholar, a defining humanist and an advocate of the beaten biscuit. We all will miss him dearly."

Barker recalls spending time with Egerton last September in Birmingham for the SFA Founders gathering. The occasion included "putting a serious hurting on a bottle of bourbon" with Lowcountry legend Louis Osteen and culinary anthropologist Vertamae Grosvenor. "I remained silent, absorbing the aura of three Southern icons recollecting and remembering. The Southern Foodways Alliance's founding voice was exceptional and clear in that moment."

Egerton also was renowned for encouraging young people drawn to the study of the South. Kate Medley, a Durham photojournalist and digital media director for Whole Foods, was a graduate student when she first met Egerton in 2005 at an SFA symposium in Oxford, Miss.

"He was one of the first people who inspired me with the notion that we can make the South and the world a better place by the simple act of sitting down for a meal—sharing a table, food, conversation and storytelling—with the people in our community," says Medley, who documents the lives and work of farmers along the East Coast. "He contributed great scholarship and demonstrated extraordinary kindness."

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.

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