I just found out from the Appalachian Studies email list that John Egerton died Thursday morning of an apparent heart attack. He was 78. I was hoping he's have at least another two decades in good health.
Born in Georgia and raised in Cadiz, KY (northwest of Nashville, TN), Egerton went to the University of KY and was the kind of white Southerner our Northern detractors often ignore when they just know we're all flaming racists. (I learned this when I went to William & Mary from a New Yorker who told me he wasn't going to date rape me since he knew I was a Southern belle, say what?) I knew Egerton the author of the classic Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South and as the good friend and "partner in shenanigans" of the late Reverend Will D. Campbell.
What I didn't know is that he was probably more famous for his book, Southern Food, named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Chas Sisk explains the connection, Egerton
observed that, despite their differences, all Southerners shared a common cuisine and that their stories could be found in the recipes themselves.
Here's a description by one of the southern journalists Egerton mentored, Tom Elben, who reviewed the book for the Atlanta Journal-Constituion:
John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture...We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville "meat and three" where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins. "If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood," he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.
I really can't explain the role of Egerton better than his friend Elben, so I'll quote him again:
John's soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.I like to think that if there's an afterlife, Egerton is again a "partner in shenanigans" with Reverend Campbell. May y'all's memory be for a blessing and give the rest of us an inspiration to carry on.
John's most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.