John Egerton Memorial Celebrated The Life Of Southern Food Historian

Southern food enthusiasts, chefs and literary luminaries gathered in Nashville yesterday to celebrate the life of John Egerton, noted author on topics ranging from civil rights to Southern culture and cuisine. He passed away on November 21. The event was held at the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, a wholly appropriate locale considering, as library director Kent Oliver stated in his introductory remarks, "John probably spent more time here than anyone else."

If Egerton had his way, no such memorial would have been held. In written instructions left in a sealed envelope to be opened upon his passing, he specifically requested that there be no ceremony or fanfare, and if a reception absolutely must occur, it should cost no more than $75. He was a no-nonsense kind of man. His older son Brooks Egerton shared more details of his father's wishes including the fact that he didn't even want anyone to incur expenses for an urn for his ashes because, "no one should have to pay to leave this circus."

So the assembled crowd that packed the library's auditorium and a large overflow room to watch on closed-circuit TV was admonished not to consider the event to be any sort of memorial, but rather to treat it as a celebration of life. Southern Foodways Alliance executive director John T. Edge shared stories of his friend and mentor of 20 years. Calling Egerton "an enabler" in the best sense of the word, Edge recalled how Egerton was the first to encourage others to pursue projects without letting them know that it was actually Egerton's will that the project take place. Edge described Egerton as the perfect person to talk to about ideas because he would always ask the proper, probing questions to help concretize concepts that you were struggling with.

Margaret Reinkl, the editor of and Egerton's neighbor, spoke of how the author had served as a mentor to food writers, non-fiction researchers, novelists and civil rights historians, and how he made each of them feel like their individual projects were always worth pursuing. Egerton himself published 13 books during his lifetime and edited four others, and he always understood that writing is a process that must be worked at; he just made it look effortless. She also shared the remembrances of many authors whose lives had been affected by Egerton that they had shared on Chapter 16's website.

March Egerton, John's younger son, shared a more personal side of his father, but just about everyone in attendance was familiar with how when Egerton got nose-to-nose with you, he really considered you the most important person in the room at the time. March also shared the badly kept secret that his father wasn't really much of a cook, and that "anything in the kitchen more complicated than boiling water he learned from his wife." In fact, the famous recipe that Egerton demoed for Southern Living a dozen years ago and which NY Times Julia Moskin called "a life-changing event" was actually the first time he had ever attempted to fry a chicken.

March spoke of his last visit with his father in Colorado, where John told him that he felt that he had "one more big trip in him." He planned to visit Portugal to satisfy an intellectual curiosity about the history behind the name of his hometown in Cadiz, KY. When March reminded him that the official language of Portugal was Portuguese, John told him that was no concern to him. True to form, March said that one of his final memories was of his father "cornering a diminutive Honduran busboy to get his entire life's history."

John's son-in-law concluded the service (oops, celebration) by reading from May Sarton's "Autumn Sonnets" while pictures from Egerton's youth flashed on the big screen.

Egerton said that sometimes when someone dies, "all you can do is take them a casserole and give them a hug." As the crowd moved to the Grand Reading Room on the third floor of the library, a collection of Southern chefs offered their metaphorical casseroles and hugs to Egerton's friends and family. Tables were set up ringing the large room with classic Southern dishes like biscuits and apple hand pies from Sean Brock and his staff at Husk, thick-slab smoked bologna sandwiches from Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint, and other offerings from Nashville stalwarts City House, Margot Café and Jim `N Nick's Bar-B-Que.

The setting could not have been more ideal as the assembled celebrated Egerton's lifelong love of food and words. Just steps away from the library's Civil Rights Room, where Egerton wrote or edited almost every word in the various displays, his friends posted their memories on boards to share. Even though John didn't want any sort of fuss after his passing, he certainly would have appreciated the sharing of his history and some great Southern food in his honor.