The food world, particularly in the South, has been rocked by the sudden death of John Egerton on November 21. Egerton is known for having achieved notoriety in two different fields of academic study that are at the core of Southern culture: food and civil rights. More than that, to many he represented the conscience of a modern South, forcing us to remember both the positive and negative elements of our past.
In this age of almost fawning attention to Southern food and culture, Egerton was quick to correct a lazy observation that overlooked key historical or cultural facts. But he never meant to punish; he just wanted to keep the conversation based in the reality that he studied and described in his seminal works Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South that won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History, a treatise on the cultural elements of Southern cuisine that should be within arm’s reach of every food writer’s desk. It’s also handy to keep a copy in the glove box of your car for road food advice while traveling through the region.
Egerton was also one of the founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization where many of his fans discovered that John was so much more than just an academic. Meeting him in the flesh, SFA members discovered that he was an incredibly warm and welcoming person who sought to introduce newbies to as many old hats as possible at the annual SFA Symposium. He was also quite a “close talker,” which could make new acquaintances a little bit uncomfortable upon first speaking nose-to-nose with such a powerful intellect. In actuality, Egerton always drew people close, so you could always find him in a crowd by the tight clump of people that surrounded him to bask in his wisdom.
John Egerton did not tweet. His eloquence could not and should not be constrained to just 140 characters at a time. But in this age of instant public communication, many members of the culinary and academic communities took to the electronic ether to share their grief and memories:
The theme of next year’s SFA Symposium might as well have been designed specifically for Egerton: “Counter Culture: marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and asking questions about who is welcome at today’s welcome table.” He had already planned to be front and center at the proceedings, and he will certainly be front of mind for the attendees.
Just as John Egerton would not let denizens of the present forget the past, he will not soon be forgotten by those that share his love of Southern culture. His fervent attention to the importance of preserving the history of the region will be reflected on menus, in hearts and minds for a long time. But a world where I know that here at the end of November that John is not busily gathering the ingredients for his much sought after annual holiday gift of sock sausage and beaten biscuits is just a lot less palatable.