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PAST & REPAST: John Egerton

Photo of the columnist by Denny Culbert.

Food and History:

Discussed: Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History by John Egerton 

(University of North Carolina Press, 1993)

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, the urtext of contemporary culinary writing and scholarship. Part travelogue, part socio-cultural history, and part cookbook, this mid-1980s snapshot of the South’s belly and mind won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ first annual award for “Writings on Food.” The book’s popularity not only initiated—along with Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking—a national focus on regional flavors but also helped spur the last quarter-century of Food Studies. Never out of print since its 1987 publication, Southern Food continues to influence each rising generation of culinary enthusiasts, as Sean Brock’s, the South’s premier chef and culinary visionary, recent tweet attested: “Anytime I need inspiration or motivation to write I just read anything written by John Egerton.”

I discovered Southern Food only a half-dozen years ago. Exiled from New Orleans to New York, I sought out every representation of home I could find. Like many fellow New Orleanians displaced due to the federal levee system failure, I immersed myself in my city’s culture. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Walker Percy’s novels, and the Saints became immensely important. But it was food that became my totemic symbol, my connective cord to a city and a life disappeared. In those first months, I hunted down the few bottles of Crystal hot sauce and Zapp’s potato chips that happened into Northern groceries; I cooked gumbo, red beans, and jambalaya to an obsessive degree. Fearing our recipe literature lost, I compulsively collected local cookbooks and researched Louisiana’s culinary history. Taking up fork and pen, I eventually found my way to Mr. Egerton’s opus.

His thesis stung hard. It resonated in that place that wished this physical and emotional inundation that accompanied Hurricane Katrina was all a very bad dream. The South’s “past now belongs to myth and memory,” he wrote, while its food endured despite the intrusion of that decade’s new American cuisine and its “sin of subtraction.” Modern cookbooks removed fat, salt, and sugar from recipes—cooking no longer took time. Egerton highlighted the endangered species, those Southern foods struggling to survive: country ham and crawfish bisque, Brunswick stew and slow-cooked pit barbecue. The region’s diverse culinary cultures, like my flooded city, required defenders and preservationists.

At the time, to have known more about the life of John Egerton would have provided glimmers of hope. His career as an author and activist might be best summed up by his masterwork and its Faulkner-quoting title, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). Here, as in all his work, he injects the personal into the political and integrates the past with the present. 

Atlanta-born in 1935, John Egerton remembers family meals to be “very simple and very recognizable.” Straightforward Southern food cooked by Mom, he reminisced in an oral history, “Mashed potatoes, green beans, all kinds of vegetables, fried chicken, some kind of beef, pork in all its many forms.” Two rules governed the family table: Be home for supper every night and eat all of everything. A freelance journalist for over two decades, in 1984 Egerton won a three-year fellowship sponsored by Chattanooga’s Lyndhurst Foundation to research anything he desired. He chose the “wildest, far-out idea” that came to mind: “A look at the stomach of the South.” Over the next twenty months, Egerton wandered around and ate extensively, consuming two thousand Southern dishes. He rediscovered outliers such as Pine Bark Stew, a soup said to be so improbably thick that it could be eaten off slabs of wood, and Lane Cake, a boozy confection that originated in a dry Alabama county.   

Egerton almost immediately became the region’s leading culinary expert. His syndicated column, “True Grits,” appeared in newspapers from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to Tampa, Florida. In 1999, Egerton convened a meeting that led to the formation of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi-based organization that “documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.”  

I’ve met Mr. Egerton only once: on a bourbon-soaked, front-porch after-party one Oxford, Mississippi, twilight. I was new to this crowd, nervous, and likewise thoroughly bourbon-soaked. I recall mumbling an introduction while shaking the great man’s hand, then holding the screen door open for him to vanish inside.

Southern Food continues to inhabit this little foundational niche in my life. In New York, while whittling away at a post-graduate History degree, I worked at Kitchen Arts & Letters, a bookstore entirely devoted to food and drink. There in the rear left corner, the “Southern section,” resided the newest paperback edition. Engrossed in my master’s thesis research on early Creole cookbooks, it made me proud that my home state was the only one that warranted its own chapter in Southern Food. Now, back home in New Orleans, I pick up every second-hand copy I come across and gift them to the never-ceasing stream of newly arriving emigrant writers. More recently, before leaving on a month-long road trip to document North Carolina barbecue for the SFA, I first retraced Egerton’s own barbecue circuit through seven states. His romantic yet candid musings on barbecue culture remain one of the best ever put to paper. That chapter begins: 

Is it a dream, a figment of the imagination—or is it reality? The ultimate barbecue discovery lives in the minds of countless thousands of Southerners as a seamless blend of wishful fantasy and actual experience. They see it shining graillike in the distance, shimmering with all the intensity of summer heat on south Georgia asphalt: a simple shelter under a tin roof and a creosote-blackened chimney—and inside, waiting on the pit, is an utterly perfect slab of smoked meat that has just at that very moment reached the pinnacle of readiness.

My copy of Southern Food rests within easy-reference reach, occupying a space on the floor just to the right of my desk. It’s a used first-edition copy, faded and scuffed with a few pages ripped out. Inside, its pages have long since faded yellow. Its cover rarely collects dust. And it’s still a good read. Happy Book Birthday to you, Mr. Egerton.

 

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