On November 21, 2013, beloved author John Egerton died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack at his Nashville home. He was seventy-eight. Along with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Ann Bleidt Egerton, and his sons, Brooks and March, and their families, John left behind an almost uncountable number of friends, colleagues, and admirers. At a celebration of his life held on December 8, several hundred of them gathered at the Nashville Public Library to remember the author of Southern Food and Speak Now Against the Day, among many other influential books on the troubled culture of the American South.
Joe York of the Southern Foodways Alliance documented the celebration of John’s life with this video, which captures the joy and the humor inherent in any recollection of John Egerton’s life and work. At Chapter 16, we are honored to publish the prepared remarks given in John’s honor at the library celebration on December 8, as well as excerpts from a selection of reminiscences by those who attended:
A Welcome from the Family
By Brooks Egerton, John’s older son
By some measures, we should not be here today. I don’t just mean that Dad died before any of us were ready. I mean he left us a sealed envelope to be opened after his death. And it contained a letter insisting that we have no ceremony. So we are going to do our best today to not have a ceremony, to not lionize or canonize or ritualize. We really are aiming for a celebration of life, a party, something more like a fun wedding than a funeral, a place where tales get told.
To that end, here are a few quick Dad stories. One concerns the persistent myth that he was some sort of master cook who had learned all the secrets of the Southern kitchen eons ago. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Back in the spring, The New York Times ran a first-person piece in which an author described her journey to successful chicken frying. A “life-changing event for me,” she wrote, “was the discovery of Southern Living’s Best Fried Chicken recipe. Norman King, the magazine’s food editor and the author of its new all-frying, all-the-time cookbook, The Way to Fry, says that the recipe was demonstrated a dozen years ago to the editors by the eminent Southern cook John Egerton, and they haven’t bettered it since.”
Well, here’s the rest of the story: Dad told me that when Southern Living asked him to do the demo, he had never even fried a chicken. He was not an “eminent” cook. He just had the good luck to live around great cooks all his life, and the good sense to report on them, and the devoted journalist’s knack for on-the-job learning.
My brother and I remember one morning, long before his food books came out, when Dad had to feed us breakfast. Those were the days when he didn’t know a teaspoon from a tablespoon. He made us cream of wheat that was so salty we refused to eat it. He was frustrated with us at first but eventually gave up and fed it to the dog. Tried to, anyway. The dog wouldn’t eat it either. If I recall correctly, his shame sat outside in the dog food bowl until the ants came along to clean up—and they wouldn’t eat it either.
As an adult, he loved to tell little boys how he used to cope at the dinner table when he was their age: he’d slip food he didn’t like into his shoe.
Another myth was that Dad loved all kinds of Southern food. No, no, no. We couldn’t get him to eat winter or summer squash, and okra only if it was fried. As a child, he was known for being a bit of a picky eater, especially if liver was involved. As an adult, he loved to tell little boys how he used to cope at the dinner table when he was their age: he’d slip food he didn’t like into his shoe.
Dad told plenty of stories on himself. One of these was also about fried chicken. In this tale, he was a small-town teenager who’d been invited to lunch at a fancy hotel where his uncle worked in Washington. There were finger bowls on the tables. Dad didn’t know that in polite society you rinsed your greasy fingers there. He dumped his chicken bones into the water.
Dad knew better than most how precious our time and our stories are. After all, he spent the better part of two years in bed with life-threatening illness or injury—first as a young boy with tuberculosis, and later as a young father who was hit head-on in a Volkswagen Bug. So I’m going to close with a story about time, a folk tale I loved to hear him tell. It’s about food, too, I guess, and love. It concerns a farmer who took a shine to the runt pig in a litter. Pretty soon he had a pet on his hands. There was a persimmon tree out in the farmhouse yard, and the little guy loved to munch on windfallen fruit. One day, after he’d eaten it all, the farmer was seen holding that runt so he could eat straight from the branches. “It’s gonna take an awful long time to fatten up a pig that way,” said someone who witnessed the spectacle. To which the farmer replied, “Son, don’t you know time ain’t nothin’ to a hog?”
On John Egerton’s Service to the South
By John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance
I came to know John in the last two decades of his life, after he wrote Southern Food, which the culinary obsessed members of his tribe, like me, consider a masterwork. I came to know John just as Knopf published Speak Now Against the Day, his lyrical and scholarly ode to the pre-civil-rights possibilities of this butt-sprung region.
That makes me a late-twentieth-century convert to the Egerton School of Public Service, Truth Telling, Rabble Rousing, and Close Talking.
By way of his willingness to speak truth to power—while pouring Power a drink and handing Power a ham biscuit—John Egerton enabled two generations of Southerners to do better by our region and by our common man.
Like most of you here today, I know what it meant to be close-talked by John. I know what it meant on first meeting—and every meeting hence—for him to invade your personal space. For John to step up and talk to you, wearing a sweater vest and a blue button-down shirt, looking like the most conservative back-bencher you’ve ever met. For John to stand, nose to nose with you, his twinkling eyes scrunched up and boring in on you, his arm around your neck, or his hand on your forearm. Not in a gesture of control, but in a gesture of genial embrace.
We all know what it meant to be close-talked by John.
We know what it was like when John talked to you about an idea. How he started out by 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?”
And we know, too, what it was like—during all that genial close-talking—for John’s words, his kindness, his goodness, his convictions, to lay claim to us, to unsettle our consciences and compel us to action.
I spoke with Steve Suitts the other day. He and John worked together from the 1960s onward at the Southern Regional Council and at the Southern Educational Foundation—back when John was tearing up the blacktop, working as a long-form journalist, documenting while prodding the fitful integration of our public schools, our voting booths, our restaurants, our lives. Steve called John an enabler.
What a beautiful turn of phrase. John Egerton was indeed an enabler. Not an enabler in the negative sense, in the way we think of codependent spouses with destructive traits. Instead, by way of his belief in the possibilities of our region, by way of 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, too—John Egerton enabled two generations of Southerners to do better by our region and by our common man.
John chose a variety of paths for that good work. I wish to focus on his service to Nashville and the South.
The men and women of the Concerned Citizens for Improved Schools—who bounded together in the 1970s to integrate Nashville’s public schools—knew John’s persuasive powers. So did the various people who took stock of the progress and regress of the late-twentieth-century South and gathered under the banner of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare for a 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 wrote, 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.”
At different times, under different banners, John worked to codify and catalyze the study of the civil-rights movement through his support of the Nashville Public Library. Through his stewardship of Community Food Advocates, also in Nashville, he worked to end hunger through food-justice activism and actions.
John was always a master of deflection, a skilled bequeather of credit to others.
As those of us assembled today know, such examples are a small measure of the good work John did. We‘ll likely never know the breadth and depth of his work. That’s just the way he wanted it. For John was always a master of deflection, a skilled bequeather of credit to others.
I’ve talked a good bit about John’s engagement in big ideas and serious pursuits. That said, John could be corny, too. I remember him—maybe it was five years back—standing on the rear of a flatbed truck, parked behind City House restaurant here in Nashville for an end-of-summer hoedown and harvest celebration. He 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, brandishing a collection of hand-scribbled notes that he retrieved from his shirt pocket, John recited a series of height-of-summer tomato haiku. To wit:
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.
So, yes, he was corny. But corny in the service of humility, corny in the service of humanity.
We all know what it was like for John’s words, his kindness, his goodness, his convictions, to lay claim to us, to unsettle our consciences and compel us to action.
John was also a great synthesizer of Southern cultural expressions. He understood, and tried his darnedest to help us understand, the linkages between his two big books, one on food, and the other on race relations. 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.” For John, 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.”
To that end, I remember John—last September 15—standing before a crowd at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, at an event celebrating the anniversary of the Southern Foodways Alliance, the organization that John conceived and I direct. It would have been appropriate to talk about the work of the organization. To enumerate the films made and oral histories collected. To talk of the events staged and members won. But John didn’t do that.
Instead John talked about the church bombing that took place—forty-nine years ago to the day—just a few blocks north, the bombing that shook our nation and took the lives of those four little girls. John reminded us, as we ate and drank our way through the night, that our good spirits were being lifted by the sweet spirits of those martyred innocents.
When I told my twelve-year-old son about John’s death, Jess told me how sorry he was. He knew how much John meant to me, even if he couldn’t quite understand how much. Twenty minutes later, Jess asked, “Hey, Daddy, was John Egerton the man with the really good lemonade and the big swing?” Jess was referring to a recent visit our family shared with John, when we enjoyed that swing and drank deeply from a pitcher of John’s homemade lemonade.
But Jess also struck the perfect metaphorical note. John Egerton was many things to many people. And many of those people are gathered here today. He 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 dark, our future is bright.
John loved the South. It’s true that the South didn’t always love him back. But John never gave up on our benighted and beautiful region. He never gave up on us. For that, and for so much more, I stand before you—and before Ann and Brooks and March, before all of John’s family—to say that that I am so very thankful.
John Egerton, Mentor
By Margaret Renkl, editor of Chapter 16
Earlier this year, John called me up and said, “Hey, I’m mad at you—you’ve been holding out on me.”
John and I didn’t agree on everything, but in eighteen years of living on the same street—and four years of working together at Chapter 16, the publication I edit for Humanities Tennessee—I’d never known him to be mad at me, and I was a little bit alarmed. What on earth could I have done to anger the most good-natured, open-hearted human being I have ever known?
“You’ve been holding out on me,” he said. “All this time, and you never once let on that you were writing a book.”
John had a naturally democratic turn of mind and a gift for recognizing a kernel of greatness in almost everyone he met.
“That’s because I’m not writing a book,” I said.
He was undeterred. “Well, OK, then, if we’re going to parse words here: you never let on that you’ve already written a book,” he said.
“John, I promise you, I haven’t written a book,” I said.
He pulled out his trump card: “Then how come Ann and I just got an invitation to a book-launch party for a novel you wrote called Wash?”
The light dawned. There is actually another woman named Margaret Wrinkle. She happens to be almost exactly my age, and like me she grew up in Birmingham, but her name is spelled the way mine is frequently mis-spelled. Though we had never met, I knew from reading the publisher’s catalog that her forthcoming novel was to be called Wash.
I explained all this to John.
He was quiet for a moment. “Well, at least I can call back and decline that invitation,” he said finally. “But you really should write a book. You could write a good one.”
It wasn’t that John found writing effortless. He was not one of those annoying creative geniuses who find it no great problem to write a book and so believe that anybody can write one if she only sticks with it long enough and wants to badly enough. It’s that John had a naturally democratic turn of mind and a gift for recognizing a kernel of greatness in almost everyone he met. If you wanted to be writer, John believed you could be a writer, even if you yourself harbored profound doubts. “I yearned desperately to write,” Michael Sims says, “and from my first book review, John spoke to me as a colleague.”
Go to Chapter16.org and read the tributes gathered there, and the first thing you’ll notice is all the writers in the group who make a point of calling John their mentor: songwriter and memoirist Bobby Braddock, poet Bill Brown; political writer Keel Hunt, novelist Alice Randall, the Land Trust for Tennessee’s Varina Willse, food writer Nicki Pendleton Wood. And yet, despite the variety of styles and subjects and aims of this collection of authors, it represents just a tiny sampling of the full range of writers John championed during his own long career.
If I had to guess, I would say that pretty much the only qualities those folks share is a love for words and a love for John Egerton. Keel Hunt puts it this way: “John was always encouraging me in that drawl of his and with that excited look on his face, the look of both hope and fellow-suffering. When John answered a question, he looked you directly in the eye, with this knack he had of shutting out all the world but you.”
Every person in this room knows exactly what Keel is talking about.
That’s because you never in your life met a greater cheerleader for authors. Today at the Nashville Public Library, a great gathering of writers has come to celebrate John’s life, and I feel absolutely confident that there’s not a scribbler among us—published or unpublished, old or young, celebrated or obscure, poet or novelist or memoirist or journalist or songwriter or critic or scholar—whom John hasn’t encouraged and guided, cajoled and advised, if not edited outright.
If you were nursing an idea, he would ask the questions that gave it focus in your mind. If you were struggling with a passage, he would zero in on exactly where the trouble lay. If you had finished a manuscript, he would tell you where to send it, and then call the editor or the agent on your behalf without ever telling you he had done so. And when, at last, your book saw the light of day, he would come to your readings, and he would buy copies to give away, and he would call people like me to make sure someone would review it, so other readers could find it, too.
And later, when you were stuck in the middle of your next book, despairing, John would remind you again of what you were capable of. As Alice Randall remembers, “John often said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
John had a natural bent toward the best kind of teaching, an inclination to nudge and question and gently guide the beginner toward a recognition of her own best possibilities. But—perhaps because writing is such a solitary art and because he knew that writers are inclined to second-guess their own abilities and achievements—he was equally invested in supporting those whose careers were already fully realized.
He went to readings by all kinds of writers, listening intently, always ready with a question if the Q&A portion of the event threatened to stall out. And if by chance there was no one present to greet the audience and introduce the writer, John was always so knowledgeable about the work at hand that he could fill in with no notice at all, offering completely off-the-cuff remarks that sounded as polished as if he had practiced for days.
Bobby Braddock tells a story about going to hear Marshall Chapman read from her latest book at a venue where, through some oversight, no one had been assigned to introduce her. So Bobby volunteered John, and Marshall called him up to the mic. “It was the most amazing impromptu speech I ever heard,” Bobby says. “Then, as unassuming as if he had just gotten up to let the dog in out of the rain, John Egerton returned to his seat as Nashville’s rock ‘n’ roll queen, well introduced and well received, proceeded to read from her new book.”
Not many people know this—I didn’t know it myself till after I’d been working for Humanities Tennessee for four and a half years—but in Nashville we can thank John, in part, for the chance to hear hundreds of writers of the highest caliber every second weekend in October. As it turns out, the Southern Festival of Books was first conceived by Michael Zibart and John Egerton.
John often said, “I’m so proud of you.”
But despite his role as Encourager-in-Chief, as Bobby Braddock puts it, John was no Pollyanna. He offered all this help and encouragement with his eyes wide open. As the editor of four books—in addition to the thirteen he wrote himself—John knew all too well the petty jealousies and insecurities that creative people can be prone to, their baleful tendency to mark their territory and defend it against encroachers, real or imagined.
I know this about John only because a few years ago the National Endowment for the Humanities sent a team down to evaluate Chapter 16, and as a member of the editorial board, John sat in on the discussion. When the lead NEH investigator asked about what challenges Chapter 16 might face, John spoke first: “I can tell you what Chapter 16’s greatest challenge is,” he said. “It’s people like me. Writers can be an awful, curmudgeonly bunch, and a publication about books and authors has its work cut out for it.”
A clear-eyed love for his deeply flawed but beautiful homeland may be John’s most enduring trait as an author, and this is exactly the kind of love he gave his fellow writers. For regardless of his knowledge of human frailty—or perhaps because of it—John Egerton couldn’t help himself: he simply believed in us, in all of us.
By March Egerton, John’s younger son
A little over twenty years ago, I was living in Hawaii. I’d gotten to know a guy who was born and raised there, and one Sunday he invited me to join him and some friends at what they called the Mokes. The Mokuluas are twin uninhabited islands directly offshore from Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu—frequently, and accurately, described as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We paddled out in a little sea kayak, met his friends, had some beer and some food.
This building, and dozens like it, were my father’s church. It was here, as much as anywhere, that he felt moved by the spirit.
I remember one of the guys had his son there, maybe eight years old, and I watched him learning to surf on the waves that were breaking between the islands. He kept getting up, falling down, over and over. It was just one of those perfect days. When we were paddling away, sailing out of one postcard into another, one of his friends ran into the surf and yelled, “See ya in church, brah!” As in, see you here, next Sunday.
This building, and dozens like it, were my father’s church. He spent countless hours of his life in them, and while he wasn’t much on religion, I think it was here, as much as anywhere, that he felt moved by the spirit. John made it known that when he died he wanted no fanfare, no funeral, not even an urn for his ashes. As he put it, “No one ought to have to pay to get out of this circus.” But I like to think that this location simply never occurred to him as a place to be remembered by those who loved him, and if it had, it would surely have been his cathedral of choice. So thank you all for being here, and we are forever grateful to the library staff for making this extraordinary event possible.
John’s father was a wayward dreamer, a melancholic drunk. John perhaps inherited from him his own occasional melancholic streak, but he didn’t get much else. In his teens, when he was the only child still at home, his mother would send him out to find his father, who would often disappear for days at a time.
About the time my brother was born, John’s father came home one day and uttered the words that every wife of an alcoholic spendthrift aches to hear: “Honey, I bought a hotel.” He conveniently left out the word “fleabag,” and when my parents travelled to Cadiz, Kentucky, to show off their firstborn child, John’s dad was too preoccupied with his latest doomed enterprise to even come have a look.
My father taught me many things. How to be a husband, for one. Until his last breath, he remained ass-over-teakettle in love with my mother. And he was good about letting her know it. He taught me how to be a father. How to do what you say you will do. He was not, by any measure, an extravagant man, and he taught me about slowing down and enjoying life’s simple pleasures, among them country ham and good bourbon.
On the other hand, He taught me zero—and I do mean zero—about home improvement or anything involving the use of hand tools. He provided no guidance whatsoever on how not to wear a blue shirt every day of the week. And, as my mother would readily attest, he was the world’s worst coach when it came to telling people no.
He frequently said I was too hard on myself, told my wife he worried about me that way. I always found that an interesting blind spot of his. Writing is by definition a pretty solitary pursuit. John was a journeyman at heart, not a star, and he knew how hard you have to grind to get anywhere in his chosen profession. He just didn’t convey that and instead had this avuncular, aw-shucks manner that conveyed just the opposite and caused more than a few folks, upon meeting him for the first time, to wonder, “Do I have the right John Egerton?” That’s part of what made aspiring writers and historians and foodies gravitate toward him. He made it seem easy, or at least doable. He was always, at heart, an optimist.
His avuncular, aw-shucks manner caused more than a few folks, upon meeting him for the first time, to wonder, “Do I have the right John Egerton?”
Unlike perhaps everyone else you know, my father had a bust of Robert Kennedy sitting on the back of his toilet. It dawned on me that I didn’t know where it came from, and the other day I looked at it and felt a wave of embarrassment at my lack of curiosity, or at least memory. It was the 1995 Robert Kennedy Book Award grand prize for Speak Now Against The Day. My father died one day short of the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and while I’m aware of Robert Kennedy’s place in history, I always think of the same thing when his name comes up: the lines from Romeo and Juliet he read at his brother’s funeral. I saw the footage in a documentary years ago, and, even though I can’t ever remember song lyrics or jokes, I memorized it on the spot.
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars.
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
The other notable feature of my father’s bathroom was his Rejection Wall, covered with letters—decades worth—of people saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” One of the earliest, from 1966, is from Reader’s Digest. Next to that is this gem from 1988, the year after Southern Food was published:
We have read your manuscript “Pilgrim’s Progress” with boundless delight. If we were to publish your article, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.
I actually looked that guy up, and he finished out his days as the editor of Reader’s Digest, so I guess that was punishment enough.
John’s favorite, though, was from The Washington Post. It said simply: No, I’m afraid not. Thanks for sending it, though.
And there you have it. In the most private and austere of settings, he communed every day with his highest high, his many lows. It was his constant reminder to himself that the writer’s life is a process, a struggle, and that you learn more from your failures. It was also an indication of his groundedness, his amazing lack of ego. My father was an expert at keeping it real, every single day of his life.
When I was first getting into real estate, I bought a house from a songwriter of some renown. He had parlayed his success into a sizeable real-estate portfolio, which, I later found out, was collapsing due to a nasty turn in the economy and his prodigious appetite for cocaine. Our deal—the terms of which read like something from a late-night infomercial—involved me handing over a large earnest-money check to his very shady attorney. I noticed that the attorney’s secretary, who was probably fifty, lit up whenever the songwriter was around. So I asked her how well she knew the guy, and if he was, you know, OK to do business with. She said, “Aw honey, he has all kinds of problems. But when he talks to you, you feel like you are the only woman in the world.”
Not exactly the answer I was hoping for, and the whole thing ended miserably, but that crazy guy just popped into my head the day my father died. John was not the same troubled soul by any means, but he shared that gift of connecting with people, making them feel important. Making them feel special. I lost count long ago of the number of strangers who have said to me, when they discovered that I was his son, “I know your father. He’s a wonderful man.” The term mentor comes up again and again.
He made you feel that you were, right then, the only person in the world. He was so good at this that I’ve had people tell me since his death that they were actually crestfallen to discover that he had been there for so many others as well.
It always felt like he was rooting for you. He made you feel like your dream was his dream. That you were, right then, the only person in the world. He was so good at this that I’ve had people tell me since his death that they were actually crestfallen to discover that he had been there for so many others as well.
I took my oldest son to a geological conference in Denver a few weeks ago, and John flew out to join us for what would be our last hurrah. On a whim, I took him to a Brazilian steakhouse, where he drank a caipirinha, which he had raved about after his visit to Brazil some years ago. In typical fashion, he declared to the waiter that it was one of the best meals of his life, and then, in his close-talking swansong, capped the evening by cornering a diminutive Honduran busboy for his life’s story on the way out. We talked a lot about travel in Denver, and he said he thought he had one big trip left in him. I mentioned the Caribbean, but he wanted to go to Portugal—something about nailing down once and for all the origin of the name of his childhood home, Cadiz. I asked some logistical questions and pointed out that the official language of Portugal is Portuguese, which could be a problem. He was undeterred, and upbeat.
So after all this, I end up confronted with every writer’s constant nemesis: a cliché. My father was a rock. I realized in writing this I can sum the man up in two words. Always. There. In a way, the experience of losing him has been like having to drop that rock in a lake of perfect calm. Once you let go, it sinks, and it vanishes. But something else happens. Each of us, I like to think, are ripples from the rock. And as time marches, and we roll outward into the universe, we bump into other objects and other lives, and that creates new ripples. And in that way the rock, still out there somewhere, never really disappears.
A Selection of Excerpts from Reminiscences Posted at the Celebration by Friends and Family
Cracking the Code
John was the first white person I ever heard pay any attention at all to my ancestors. John helped me set the foundation for a retelling of the history of black women working in other people’s kitchens. He challenged me to think seriously about how best to reclaim their image while at the same time spurring racial reconciliation at the table. Over time, I began to think that John should share credit for the project. We had tossed thoughts around the table so many times and for so long that it seemed impossible for me to tell his from mine. But John was adamant. “I may have helped steer you to a few resources, but you have made this book your own. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
—Toni Tipton-Martin, food activist and author of the forthcoming book The Jemima Code
My mother, who was born in 1909 in Wedowee, Alabama, and whose views on most topics reflected that heritage, looked at John [over supper one night in the mid-1980s] and asked the classic Southern question: “What church do you go to, John?” He slowly responded with his gentle smile and classic twinkling eyes: “Well, ma’am, I guess you would call me a backsliding Unitarian!” For my mother, he could have just said he was a Communist. But she continued to adore John.
—Kathleen Egerton Harkey, a cousin several times removed
A Ham-and-Biscuits Ministry
He was a preacher without a pulpit. He offered a blessed communion of well-aged country ham slivered into his handmade beaten biscuits, accompanied by bourbon that was rich and complex as his soul. He served it to anyone who would come. He served it at a table where we, as a region, as a country, as human beings, could gather peaceably to talk the truth about our darkest moments and our highest love. He taught us that turf is a worthless thing to defend; it only counts when it’s ground you can stand on with as many people as it will hold.
—Food writer Ronni Lundy, who originally published this as a longer tribute here
Brother Will and Brother John
They loved each other. In a way that was apparent if unspoken. This love led to John providing a steadying influence to our family during the last twenty-five months of my father’s life. With his visits, and reassurances, and embraces, [and] a blog update regarding Dad. His beautiful words gave inspiration and comfort to the reader. And to us. Fittingly, once John himself passed, its many recipients began to communicate among themselves. Because the love they had for John was akin to the love he had for Dad.
—Webb Campbell, son of the Reverend Will D. Campbell
Like the Rabbis of Old
Southern Food will always be my personal guide to the buried treasure of my constantly moving, self-loving, embattled motherland. Like the rabbis of old, he has not truly passed, rather he has fulfilled his immortality, and Southern Food will be with me ever more as I travel the roads looking to preserve and defend the ancestral voices that serve as board of directors for my work. Like them, I will comment on him, correct him, defy him, quote him, counterpoint his voice and affirm his truths.
—Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria.com, which originally published a longer tribute here
Searching the World Over
Despite having grown up in Cadiz, Kentucky, John seemed open-minded and curious, unconstrained by conventional beliefs or traditional ways of doing things. He once told my grandmother that he had been attending Sunday services at a Congregational church. She asked what they believed, and he confessed that they were skeptical about the divinity of Jesus. She replied: “Son, don’t get involved with people like that.” He was hungry for adventure and always eager to meet new people. He flew to Africa in search of Albert Schweitzer, and he gave me a ticket to hear Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael speak at Vanderbilt.
—Mark McDaniel, one of John’s nephews and a Catholic priest in Louisville
Feasting at the Big Table
I remodeled John’s house a few times. I will never forget John making the crews breakfast. Not a box of donuts or a bagful of fast-food fare, but a huge, sit-down country breakfast with pancakes, toast, country ham, his homemade jams and jellies, honey, and eggs any way you wanted them. And this wasn’t just spooned onto plastic plates and eaten standing outside. John and Ann would have us all sit at the picnic table and serve us our breakfast on real china with a friendly pat on the shoulder and humorous comment on our eating abilities. I have been in construction most of my life and have had clients who wouldn’t even think of a glass of water when it is a hundred degrees in the shade. I will never forget a prize-winning author taking the time to make the best breakfast anyone has ever offered.
Sweet, Sweet Summertime
Mr. John always gave me peaches.
—Kyle Wolfson, a nine-year-old neighbor
As an international student attempting to get into the medical field, I needed more assistance than the regular student. Because of you I wake up every morning and do what I love. Because of you I have the opportunity to have a positive impact on others every day. Thank you for believing in me.
—Batsi Mutize, orthopedic trauma physician assistant
Keeping the Heat On
I was humbled by the fights that he brought to my inbox, like fighting for school janitors to keep their jobs and benefits or for the library archives to receive the respect and resources they deserved. Always words for those that didn’t have the access that he did.
—Kristine LaLonde, former Metro Council member, now with the mayor’s Office of Innovation
Words of Wonder
When we were very young, John delighted in teasing us with unfamiliar words. We were alarmed to learn we were “covered with garments,” which I imagined as an army of invisible bugs. And when John whispered in a conspiratorial way that we quite definitely had “ancestors” and would someday in the future have something mysterious called “descendants,” we all shivered with concern.
—Judith Egerton, one of John’s nieces, a painter and a retired reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal
Speak Now Against the Peanut
At an especially languid point in my lecture, I asked for a show of hands: “Is there anyone in the room who does not like boiled peanuts?” There was a short pause, and then one hand went up—it was John’s. “John Egerton?!” I shouted from the podium, and the room erupted in laughter because nobody could believe it. … We did, eventually, get an opportunity to serve John top-quality boiled peanuts at a Southern Foodways Alliance field trip at the O. Henry Hotel, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Matt and I had brought the peanuts, freshly dug a few days earlier in Florida, to Greensboro, and we’d seasoned them and boiled them on site. John had just given a brilliant demonstration of his biscuit brake. We offered him a peanut, and he tasted it. “Well, these aren’t so bad after all,” he said, with an easy smile and sparkling eye. “They sure are different from all the boiled peanuts I’ve ever had before.” We like to imagine that was the only lie John Egerton ever told!
—Ted Lee, food writer and co-founder of The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue
Tough Love, Part One
The Egertons’ home on Copeland Drive was my second home growing up. Over many meals, I was asked to tell some part of my story and, to my amazement, they would listen to every installment. After college I was once again back on Copeland Drive. This time with a broken heart after a young woman I thought I would marry had dumped me in a cruel way. I told my sad tale at dinner to a quiet audience, and afterwards I went to sit by the fire. John came in and sat beside me. He started slowly and gently, “Marcus, I can see that you are in a lot of pain right now.” Finally, here was the sympathy I was looking for. But then he continued, “And I’m really glad this has happened to you.” He explained, “I’ve watched you two boys tomcattin’ around with girls for years, and now you’ve learned firsthand what it feels like to be mistreated. I know this experience is going to make you a better man.” Once again, John was right, and I believe it did help me become a kinder person.
Tough Love, Part Two
What an honor John bestowed on me when he asked that I write the chapter on education for his book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait! I had covered education for the Nashville Banner for a decade, and I thought I could easily describe the state of education in our community at the turn of the century. What I didn’t know was how much it would feel like a dissertation by the time my chapter was ready for print, i.e. multiple revisions until I had brought to life the vision John had for this chapter. He was such a great editor—diligent and exacting but so kind and patient.
Finding our Voices
Of all the photographs and videos I’ve taken in Nashville, there’s one short piece of video footage of John that I particularly love. It’s only about thirty seconds long, and there isn’t a word spoken in it. John is sitting in his favorite chair with Hitch, his beloved dog, in his lap. John gazes at Hitch imploringly, and then raises his head up and begins to howl, a swooping animal cry. Hitch watches him, puzzled, for a while, and then finally joins in, lifting his head and raising his voice.
John helped Hitch to find his voice, to sing his own song. John did that for a lot of us.
The two of them sing and howl together for a bit, and it ends with John lovingly watching Hitch singing the song he was born to sing, joyous and mournful, looking to the heavens. It was a kind of parlor trick that John could perform for visitors. But lately, I’ve been thinking how much it actually says about who John was, about what he did for those around him. March, my brother-in-law, found Hitch fifteen years ago at the side of the highway. Hitch was filthy and weak and two of his legs were broken; he must have been close to death. March rescued him, and John and Ann took him into their home. They cared for him and nursed him back to health. And then John helped Hitch to find his voice, to sing his own song. John did that for a lot of us.
—Jim Crawford, John’s son-in-law
Some Books John Egerton Blessed Us With
A Mind to Stay Here: Profiles From the South (1970)
“I never thought of leavin’ the South,” the Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer says. “I love it. I was born here. … People who tell me to go back to Africa, I got an answer for them. I say when all the Italians go back to Italy, and all the Germans go back to Germany … and when they give the Indians their land back and they get on the Mayflower and go back to where they came from, then I’ll go home too.”
The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974)
The modern, acquisitive, urban, industrial, post-segregationist, on-the-make South, its vices nationalized, its virtues evaporating if not already dissipated, is coming back to the Mother Country, coming back with a bounce in its step, like a new salesman on the route, eager to please, intent on making it.
Visions of Utopia: Nashoba, Rugby, Ruskin, and the “New Communities” in Tennessee’s Past (1977)
The basic instincts which compelled them to try to achieve seemingly impossible feats were sound and correct and commendable instincts. They should be remembered now not for having failed spectacularly, but for having dreamed impossible dreams, and for having tried to make them come true.
Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries (1979)
Montgomery Bell, the wealthy and reclusive industrialist who died in 1855 … left $20,000 to the University of Nashville “for the support of an Academy or school to be called the Montgomery Bell Academy forever for the education of children … who are not able to support and educate themselves and whose parents are not able to do so.”
Generations: An American Family (1983)
By chance, by sheer good fortune, I found myself sitting on the cabin porch of a 105-year-old woman in the marshy low country of South Carolina. At the beginning of the nation’s third century, she could remember the start of the second…. I came away from that experience with a heightened awareness of the treasures that waste away in the minds and memories of the elderly.
Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987)
I have disregarded my lack of formal credentials as either a historian or a cook and entered the arena, armed only with my license as a professional writer and my fifty years of experience as a Southern eater…. For everything that works, I give Ann full credit. … There is hardly a culinary skill short of boiling water that I can truly say I learned without her help.
Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990)
As long as there is corn, there will be roasting ears and cornbread and sour mash whiskey. As long as there are pigs and fire, there will be barbecue. As long as there is remembrance, there will be Southerners cooking and eating the immortal foods of their history.
Shades of Gray: Dispatches From the Modern South (1991)
“Some of my best friends are Southerners,” one New Yorker of my acquaintance told me unwittingly–and I discovered that in his heart of hearts, he was firmly convinced that all Southerners were alike, and he certainly didn’t want his daughter to marry one.
Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994)
Anywhere you start, you’re walking into the middle of something. There’s no way you can go back to the actual beginning, because there is no beginning, and no end.
Please click here to read a collection of short tributes to John Egerton from those who knew and worked with him around the country, here to read a remembrance about John’s role at Chapter 16, and here for some links to John’s writing for this site.