Thursday, November 21, 2013

John Egerton, who loved Southern food and culture, and civil-rights struggles, and wrote them up, dies

Egerton fixed beans, simple slaw and cornbread dodgers
for the Nashville Cooks series in 2010 (Tennessean photo)
John Egerton, a chronicler of the civil-rights movement, Southern food and culture, and many other topics, died this morning in Nashville of an apparent heart attack. He was 78. UPDATE, Nov. 23: Kim Severson of The New York Times catches up with a well-done obituary. Nov. 24: The Times has an appreciation from John Edge, with whom Egerton founded the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

"Egerton made his name with Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award," Michael Cass writes for The Tennessean."He also wrote Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History and other books, and he co-edited Nashville: An American Self-Portrait, a turn-of-the-millennium look at the city he moved to in the 1960s."

The University of Kentucky graduate was also known for The Americanization of Dixie, and he also won awards for Generations: An American Family. "Mr. Egerton brought a renewed focus to fading culinary traditions and evoked a sense of how food could be a unifying force among people of different backgrounds," writes Matt Schudel of The Washington Post. "Although Mr. Egerton’s books on civil rights and Southern food would seem to have little in common, he considered them deeply intertwined. For him, terror, the fight for justice and slow-cooked meals were all part of the tangled legacy of the world into which he was born."

Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, wrote this recollection of his friend:
"As a journalist and author John Egerton wrote about social change in the 20th century South with impressive skill and sensitivity. His early reporting in Atlanta on school integration laid the foundation for his great book, Speak Now Against the Day (a quotation from William Faulkner) . . . This was one of those important books that should have won a Pulitzer Prize but didn't. In an exemplary work of oral history, he crafted Generations, about the lives of an Appalachian couple, Burnam and Addie Ledford, married in 1903, who each lived for over 100 years with memories that John transformed into what The Washington Post's reviewer called "a small American epic." . . . John's interest in Southern foodways -- the customs, celebrations, and cooks -- inspired his humanitarian campaign to help New Orleans chefs whose businesses were damaged and lives uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He never wrote fiction that I knew about, nor waged crusades in the style of Harry Caudill or Wendell Berry, but for a keen eye, an attentive ear, and eloquent reporting in depth, I don't think he was surpassed by any Kentucky journalist in our time, and few elsewhere in the South."


ronni lundy said...

"...for a keen eye, an attentive ear, and eloquent reporting in depth, I don't think he was surpassed by any Kentucky journalist in our time, and few elsewhere in the South."
Exactly, Al Cross. Thank you for a fine remembrance of an extraordinary man and friend.

Anonymous said...

we were journalists partly at the same time, but i never met him or ran across him covering politics in alabama and kentucky. he left a significant mark. set an example. contrast his journalism with today's SI Newhouse version, with once dailies, weak but as least dailies, now semi-useless thrice weeklies.

Anonymous said...

As a not born and bred Kentuckian but who now lives in Kentucky I am pleased to know about Mr.Egerton and will begin reading his writings.