John Egerton was more than a Tennessee journalist who crusaded for civil rights. He also foresaw the potential of black and white Southerners coming together over one thing we all have in common: the fact that we eat.
The time has come for all of us — traditional and nouvelle cooks and diners, up-scale and down-home devotees, meat-eaters and vegetarians, drinkers and abstainers, growers and processors, scholars and foodlorists, gourmands and the health-conscious, women and men, blacks and whites and other identity groups, one and all — to sit down and break bread together around one great Southern table.”
With those words, written in the summer of 1999, John Egerton breathed life into a new organization, one I now direct. His idea was to give the South’s farmers and artisans and cooks the respect they had long been denied. He aimed to put Southern food on a pedestal, and then to document and interrogate it, to marvel at the genius and the heartbreak in our region’s foodways.
This August 12, in Nashville, that organization, the Southern Foodways Alliance, will award two John Egerton Prizes of $5,000 each. Established in 2009, the endowed prize recognizes food work in the American South that addresses racism, class discrimination, gender inequity, and social and environmental justice.
The idea that work in the world food might address those issues — that came straight out of the Egerton playbook. John was a pretty good cook. He could roll out a batch of tender beaten biscuits. And his lemon curd game was strong. He was an expert provisioner of country ham and sock sausage. But John was no so-called foodie.
“Most of us never ate fried green tomatoes and most of us never will,” he said to a Lexington, Kentucky, reporter in 1992. “But it’s the comeliness of the image that we cultivate.”
For John, good food was a passkey. John spent much of his career writing about (and agitating against) the ways in which racism and white supremacy have mapped the South’s path. Writing about and organizing around food came later, as he recognized the road to equity and justice might be paved with beaten biscuits.
At 4 that Sunday afternoon, a crowd will gather at the Nashville Public Library for a free and open-to-the- public ceremony. Chuck Reece, who won a 2014 Egerton Prize for The Bitter Southerner and now serves on the SFA awards committee, will step to the podium to recognize good work. Afterward, at a ticketed event, also open to all, we’ll toast the prize winners with good food and strong drink at the 21c Museum Hotel, just down the street. Please join us.
The Neighbor's Field, a farm project of Jubilee Partners in Madison County, Georgia, welcomes and helps rehabilitate refugees. They tend a sprawling garden where refugees heal from trauma by practicing homeland agrarian traditions. The Neighbor's Field will receive a $5,000 check.
Also that night, Germaine Jenkins, who founded Chicora Place Community Garden in North Charleston, South Carolina, and now directs Fresh Future Farm there, will also receive $5,000. Her work on sustainable farming and healthy and accessible grocery services fosters community development that is socially, environmentally, and economically just.
As Chuck introduces the winners, I’ll be the guy crying quietly in the corner. Chances are I will have begun tearing up earlier in the event, about the time Alice Randall, the novelist, songwriter, and cookbook author, speaks about John’s life and career and the many legacies of his time with us. In that same room, almost five years ago, on the afternoon of December 3, 2013, I spoke before family, friends, and colleagues at a ceremony that celebrated his life.
Alice will do a better job on this August day than I did that on December afternoon. She works with advantages. Beyond just being smarter than me, Alice will benefit from perspective. She will know what it’s like to live in a South without John Egerton.
John Egerton portraits by Pableaux Johnson
I came to know John in the last two decades of his life, after he wrote “Southern Food,” which the fried chicken- and hoecake-obsessed members of his tribe consider his masterwork. By that time, he had already published six other books and won a reputation as a forceful and empathetic critic and chronicler of his native region. When we met in Oxford in 1996, John was touring for his second big book, “Speak Now Against the Day,” a lyrical and rigorously researched ode to the pre-Civil Rights Movement possibilities of our tragic and beautiful region.
Standing alongside the register at Square Books on a spring day, I asked him to inscribe my copy. He stepped close. Uncomfortably close. When John made a friend, he invaded their personal space to stand nose-to-nose, his twinkling eyes scrunched up and boring in, his arm around your neck or hand on your forearm, not as a means of control, but in a gesture of genial embrace. That day, he managed to get so close I could smell the mint on his breath, as he scribbled quickly in my copy, “With hope for the future of the South.”
~ Egerton, In His Own Words ~
Video by Joe York | Cover photograph by Pableaux Johnson
When John spoke before a crowd, he dressed like a conservative backbencher. Blue button-downs and gray slacks were his seeming uniform. That stance and those clothes obscured a radical, bent on moral suasion. When John had an idea, he sold hard. He started out saying: This probably isn’t the kind of thing you want to do. You’re too far along in your career for this. You’re too busy for this. Somebody else should be doing this. But while I have you (and he always had you), maybe you’ll hear me out? John’s kindness, his goodness, his conviction laid claim. His words and deeds unsettled consciences and compelled action.
Steve Suitts worked with John from the 1960s onward at the Southern Regional Council, and at the Southern Education Foundation, back when John was tearing up the blacktop, working as a long-form journalist, documenting the fitful integration of our public schools, our voting booths, our restaurants, our lives. When I talked to Steve after John’s death, as I was preparing remarks for his celebration of life, Steve called John an enabler. (To read remarks delivered that day, including some words I drew on for this essay, click here.)
Steve didn’t mean that in the negative sense, in the way we think of codependent spouses with destructive traits. Instead, Steve was saying that, through Egerton’s belief in the possibilities of our region, and his willingness to speak truth to power — while pouring Power a drink and handing Power a ham biscuit and promising Power a spoonful of homemade lemon curd — John Egerton enabled two generations of Southerners to do better by this place.
John did good work along many paths. Born in Atlanta, raised in Cadiz, Kentucky, he served his region ably and often as a journalist. (If you aim to read a compilation of his reportage, start with “Shades of Gray: Dispatches From the Modern South,” published in 1991.) Drawing a bead of his broader public service is tougher. We‘ll likely never know the breadth and depth of that work. That’s the way he wanted it.
An instinct to stand down when others stood up translated to his work with SFA, too. More than any person, John leveraged his reputation to establish the organization and set it on a true path. But John would not listen to tributes offered in his honor. He was a master of deflection, a skilled awarder of credit to others.
The men and women of the Concerned Citizens for Improved Schools, who bonded in the early 1970s to integrate Nashville’s public schools, knew John’s quiet persuasive powers. So did the people who took stock of the progress and regress of the late 20th century South and gathered on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare for a Birmingham symposium called “Unfinished Business.”
He addressed that group in 1998, saying: “As black and white Southerners, we have much in our experience that is recognizably similar, if not altogether common to us both, from food to faith, from music and language and social customs to family ties and folklore and spellbinding parables out of the past.
“Out of our kinship,” he said, sounding a clarion for the future, “as Southerners, as citizens, as figurative and literal brothers and sisters, can come a mutual understanding and respect and an affirmation of equality that fundamentally redefines the model of race relations in America.”
John wrote broadly about the American South. The son of a traveling salesman, he was a proud generalist who found his characters in our past and in our present, and in small towns and big cities. A few examples, pulled from the archive he deposited at Vanderbilt, tell the story of his expansive approach. In 1978, The New Times published his “The King Coal Good Times Blues.” In 1983, Southern Exposure published “A Case of Prejudice: Maurice Mays and the Knoxville Race Riot of 1919.” For The Progressive, he wrote a 1986 story, “The Enduring Mystery of James Earl Ray.”
No matter the subject, John wrote about the region and its people with affection. And he never stinted criticism, for he believed that righteous critique of a place was key to belonging to a place. In a 1977 New York Times op-ed, published in that proud moment after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, he begged a gut-check: “We have made great strides in eliminating racism — but the disease is still in us, buried deep, discreetly masked in code words such as ‘massive busing’ and ‘reverse discrimination.’ We have built glittering new cities of glass and steel — but they look like the cities of the North, and they empty out at night as streams of cars retreat to Scarsdales beyond our moated freeways.”
John was serious about his work. That said, he could be so idealistic that he sometimes came off as corny. When he drank, he could get pleasantly loose. In 2004 at an SFA event in Freedom Creek, Alabama, conceived to mark the 40th anniversary of restaurant desegregation and staged in conjunction with a blues festival, John stood before the crowd to decry the George W. Bush presidency and recite James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I remember him standing on the rear of a flatbed truck in 2009, parked behind City House restaurant in Nashville for an end-of-summer harvest celebration. John took the stage just after a performance by the singer and songwriter Valerie June. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis, mopping sweat from his brow with a bandana, grasping hand-scribbled notes retrieved from his shirt pocket, he recited a series of summer tomato haikus.
Tight skin, red as fire
Can't keep my eyes off of you
I worship your orbs.
Couldn't hold a candle to
Tennessee Big Boys.
The world according to John Egerton was not spangled by moonbeams and sunshine. He was not a natural optimist. In his 1974 book, “The Americanization of Dixie: the Southernization of America,” John foretold a future when the South would adopt the North’s brusque and industrial ways. And the North would buy into our region's worst instincts, born of slavery and nurtured by Jim Crow.
He described the process as a mutual exchange of sins. And he predicted "deep divisions along race and class lines, an obsession with growth and acquisition and consumption, a headlong rush to the cities and the suburbs, diminution and waste of natural resources, institutional malfunctioning, abuse of political and economic power, increasing depersonalization, and a steady erosion of the sense of place, of community, of belonging."
John understood the linkages between his big books on food and on race relations, but he never tried to force the connection. Speaking of food, he said that eating and drinking was his favorite way to socialize, his “favorite way to maintain close relationships with people I love.” Time at table with good food and drink restored his energy and enthusiasm.
“I love the idea that people come to the feast bringing their own riches,” he said, “and make a real banquet out of it.”
His moral clarity on the subject of contemporary Southern food culture came with a yoke. John knew that chefs had, until recently, been considered servants. He recognized that their rise, from hired hands who labored in social dungeons to owners who profited from their expertise as well as their muscle, might eventually offer a path forward for women and for all people of color.
But John didn’t believe chefs should be the standard-bearers of traditional Southern foods. And he worried over the trend that rendered fine-dining restaurants as reliquaries of home cooking.
"Now that we have easy access to heirloom pigs roasted over charcoal made from virgin timber, and organic collards served on fine china, is slaw-capped barbecue, served in a sandwich, wrapped in a tissue, still a resonant symbol of the modern South?" he asked, sketching the effects of gentrification and implying that class divides also limited the region.
He saw perils on the road to good and just food. John stood before crowds who came to hear him extol the virtues of Southern food and spoke truths.
“Even if this is the best regional food in America,” he would say, “it’s still endangered by genetic modification, mass production, focus-group marketing, modern technology, accelerated living, family disintegration, cultural homogenization, celebrity chefs, yuppie-gazers, scientifically raised hogs, shellfish depletion, politically correct tofu, and instant grits.”
John was not trying to halt the advance of progress in his native region.
“I’m not advocating a return to ‘the good old days’ of some mythic past,” he said. “For most people, they were never all that good to begin with.” The welcome table ideal was realizable, John said, but he never promised it would come easy.
I do my writing in our backyard, in what was once a toolshed. To the left, above a casement window, hangs a study of absinthe, collaged by my wife, Blair. To the right, stands a stack of photographs, ephemera, and art, including a small black-and-white photograph of a white woman in a hoop skirt, posed with a Highway 61 road sign during a ceremony that marked the opening of a Mississippi stretch of that road. Above that looms a framed album cover from the Lester Maddox spoken word performance, “If I Go to Jail,” recorded in 1964 when Maddox, the Georgia governor-to-be, fought the integration of his Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta.
These totems share wall space with a small painting on board, rendered by Amy Evans, the SFA’s first oral historian. SFA began awarding John Egerton Prizes and cash stipends in 2009. In 2014, to mark John’s passing, Amy created a visual homage to him. Each Egerton Award winner receives a framed rendering of that image, which centers on a writing desk, set with, among other totems, a plate of beaten biscuits and country ham, and a tumbler of whiskey. A close look at the table reveals that four hands and arms, of varying hues from peach to black, grasp the legs, as if they bear his legacy aloft. I was lucky enough to buy the original at an SFA benefit auction. Looking at that image now, it seems to float, free and unburdened, above Maddox.
That contrast, between positive and negative images of our region, is purposeful. Part of my responsibility as a Southerner is to “stare down the shame,” as Bitter Southerner contributor Patterson Hood would have it, to confront the many legacies of white supremacy. In a moment like this one, when those legacies seem to inspire a new generation of nativists, white supremacists, and hatemongers, John’s vigilance and activism and narrative-making inspire me anew.
John Egerton and Nick Pihakis during the cleanup of Sam's Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, Tennessee, after a devastating fire. Photo by Angie Mosier
John found many ways to fight the powers and embolden the people. In 2005 after the levees failed New Orleans, when a group of Southern Foodways Alliance members began to rebuild Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the Treme fried chicken joint, John hatched an idea to raise money. He would sell spicy pickles, made by a friend of a friend in Kentucky. I revered John, but I thought his SOS Sharpies pickle campaign was foolhardy, even naive. Later, as the bills for rebuilding Willie Mae’s poured in, and hundreds of cases of SOS Sharpies shipped out to restaurants and groceries across the nation, I came to appreciate the effort for its grassroots idealism, and, ultimately, for its effectiveness.
The next year, John published “Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves,” a slim fable about George W. “Dubyiah” Fratbush, son of Wimpbush, who presided over the fall of the American Empire. It would be his last book. Based on the recently “discovered” journals of Ibrahim Barzouni, “Ali Dubyiah” sketches how Dick Chaingang, Donald Rumsfailed, and Paul Werewolf drove Fratbush’s kingly ascent and wrecked the nation.
When Dubyiah battles Saddam Gomorrah and Osama bin Hiden, he flounders, risks the ire of his subjects, and begs the question, How long can Ali Dubyiah lie and slander and profit before the people rise up? “Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves” begged questions of our democracy. Taking the malign Trump presidency into account, John’s foray into satire now begs questions of contemporary writers like myself: How do we plan to fight the power?
When I conjure John, I picture him as he stood before a crowd at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, during a 2012 event that marked a Southern Foodways Alliance anniversary. It would have been appropriate to talk that night about the work of the organization. To celebrate films produced and oral histories collected, to talk of events staged and members won. But John didn’t do that.
Instead, John talked about the bombing that had taken place almost 49 years ago to the day just a few blocks north at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The bombing that shook our nation and took the lives of four beautiful, black girls. As we ate and drank our way deep into the night, John reminded us all, speaking with the fervor of a half-drunk preacher, that our good spirits were born aloft by the sweet spirits of those martyred innocents.
Through his writing, and through his stewardship of people and causes, John Egerton taught two generations of Southerners how to get good work done in our long-troubled region. He taught us how to affect change while modeling humility. He taught us that, although our past was surely dark, our future might be bright.
John loved the South. While it’s true that the South didn’t always love him back, John never gave up on our region. He never gave up on us. By way of these awards — which SFA has presented through the years to farmers, filmmakers, writers, and dreamers, and, now, for the first time, will present in his hometown — we disciples of his good works pledge to never give up on him.
A few Christmases before he passed, I received this note and a muslin sack of sausage from John. I reprint it here, for it shows grace and humility, deep affection for the Kentucky county where he was raised, profound awareness of the fragility of life, and an abiding belief in the sort of windmill-tilting ideas that got us those pickles and that Willie Mae’s Scotch House rebuild.
“This is Trigg County smoked sausage, but not the sublime creation of Douglas and Euneda Freeman, which we all remember nostalgically as the epitome of pork. The Freemans are no longer practicing artists; Euneda passed away last November, and Doug is in poor health and unable to cure hams and make sausage as he did in his prime. But they taught me a lot, and with the skillful assistance of some great Southern food experts, I am now involved in some experimental projects aimed at replicating the works of the masters.
“To the sausage at hand, it has pluses and minuses. To my taste, it is nicely spiced with pepper and sage, and has an acceptable ratio of lean to fat, but it is too salty, too firm, and too smoky. Never having met a country sausage that I didn't like, however, I'm probably too biased to be the best judge. One use I intend to make of it right away is as a replacement for chorizo in an okra gumbo (with duck, chicken or turkey).
“Anyway, see what you think and let me know. This trial-and-error path is the way to culinary excellence, so give yourself to the cause, and may the Sauce be with you. Chow! John Egerton.”
The sausage, as you must know by now, was flat-out delicious.