Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thank you for everything, John Egerton

John Egerton, it's just not like you to miss a good feed. Losing you a week before Thanksgiving seems that much more cruel.

John, 78, who managed to be one of the nation's great writers on two all-consuming subjects, Southern food and civil rights, died Thursday in Nashville.

Just a couple of things he did? He was the author of "Southern Foods," a reference book that hasn't left my desk in 20 years of food writing, and "Speak Now Against the Day," a book on the civil rights movement that won the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

Another thing he did: He was one of the founders and leading lights in the Southern Foodways Alliance. In those first tumultuous years, when a lot of folks with big ideas were arguing over just what the alliance should be, he was the calm voice who tried to make sure everybody stayed friends.

 But not always calm: One of my favorite memories is still from when the annual Southern Foodways Symposium was so small we all fit in one room instead of an auditorium. Damon Lee Fowler gave a talk on the origins of fried chicken, including evidence of an early dish in England that might have been a forerunner.

John, always the gentleman but capable of being irritated, stood up at the end of the talk and basically called bull: "Well, now, Damon . . . "

And there was one other thing John Egerton did. He was the first good friend I made when I moved from news reporting to food writing. The first time I went to a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, it was held in Atlanta in 1994. Man, I barely knew a soul and couldn't have told you the difference between Edna Lewis and M.F.K. Fisher. But I already knew the book "Southern Food," and was in awe of the author.

I arrived late, just in time for Egerton's keynote talk on what he thought was going to be a renewed interest in Southern food -- and why people should be interested. Afterward, I got on the elevator, and there was Egerton himself. I was struck dumb, scared to open my mouth for fear of sounding stupid. And I'll never forgot how he smiled, stuck out his hand, made my acquaintance and put me at ease.

That night, I got invited to join a group -- Egerton, his wife Ann, Ronni Lundy, Sarah Fristchner of Louisville and Karla Cook -- to go to the Watershed, the hot restaurant of the moment, where Scott Peacock was cooking with Edna Lewis. We argued over yellow cornmeal vs. white cornmeal and the best ways to cook beets and Edna Lewis got coaxed out of the kitchen to sit at our table, too shy to say a word but smiling the whole while. I still remember the food I ate, including Peacock's basil-stuffed, bacon-wrapped trout. But what I really remember was that feeling of being welcomed and gathered in. By the end of that meal, I knew that picking food writing was exactly the right choice, and I was right where I wanted to be.

In all the years since, I've stayed friends with John, always happy whenever I hear that drawl or see that smile when he hears something that strikes him as smart or just plain silly.

Thanks, John. Don't know what else to say but that.


Jim Pierson said...

That's a nice remembrance of who sounds like a fine man.

" We argued over yellow cornmeal vs. white cornmeal..."

And the answer was...?