Somehow, it seems that much crueler to lose John Egerton the week before Thanksgiving. He was a man who appreciated a good feed.
Egerton’s death last Thursday, at 78, took a lot of us by surprise. He was the sort of down-to-earth person you expect to always be around, ready to give you one more hug around the neck.
Egerton (pronounced EDGE-erton) managed to be one of the nation's great writers on two huge subjects, both Southern food and civil rights. “Southern Food,” his 1987 sort-of-encyclopedia, is still one of the definitive books. And he won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for one of his books on civil rights, “Speak Now Against the Day.” He was also one of the founders and leading lights in the Southern Foodways Alliance.
There was something else John Egerton did, though, something meaningful only to me. He was one of the first good friends I made when I moved from news reporting to food writing.
The first time I went to a gathering of the Association of Food Journalists, it was in Atlanta in 1994. I didn’t know the difference between M.F.K. Fisher and Henrietta Dull. But I already had a dog-eared copy of “Southern Food” on my desk.
At the opening lunch, John gave the keynote speech, “What Is Southern Food?”
It was magnificent, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough to write down every word.
Afterward, I jumped on the elevator and ran into Egerton himself. I was almost scared to open my mouth for fear of sounding stupid. But I admitted that I wished I had his whole speech.
He got such a kick out of it, he handed me his own copy and told me I could keep it.
That night, I got invited to join a group – Egerton, his wife Ann, Kentucky food writers Ronni Lundy and Sarah Fritchner and Columbia food editor Karla Cook – at the Horseradish Grill, where Scott Peacock was cooking with Edna Lewis.
I still remember the food, including Peacock's basil-stuffed, bacon-wrapped trout. I remember the lively table discussions, about cornmeal and field peas. I remember that John coaxed Edna Lewis out of the kitchen to sit with us, too shy to talk but smiling quietly, her hand over her mouth.
What I really remember was the feeling of being gathered in, of finding people who thought as much as I did about the same things I thought about, about food, the South and what matters.
On Friday, after I could finally stop crying, I dug into my files. There it was, the copy of that speech John had handed me on the elevator almost 20 years ago.
I’ll close with this passage from it, as fitting a tribute to the man as anything I could write:
“So what is Southern food? It’s partly an attitude, a way of thinking. It’s technique. It’s seasoning. It’s a way of cooking, from the simplest to the most complex, that says to the interested observer, ‘This isn’t hard; you can do this – roll up your sleeves and plunge in, and we’ll delight in it together.’”
Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.