Today, the world—the family—of Southern food lost a beloved patriarch. John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History, died early this morning of a heart attack at the age of 78.
John’s legacy can’t be overstated. As a writer, he challenged his audience to examine powerful topics of race and community. And his love affair with food is the stuff of legend. His most oft-cited book Southern Food, a veritable canon of the Southern diet, packed with history, lore, and simply-put how-to’s, guides readers through the richly complex world of regional staples and eccentricities. It is indispensable reading for anyone who knows that a Beaten Biscuit and an Angel Biscuit share little more than nomenclature.
As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), John was a champion of the Southern pantry, calling our cuisine the “best regional food in America–the most distinctive, the most diverse.” And he made it a priority to underscore the organization’s mission of welcoming everyone to the table. Last year, I interviewed him for a feature story in Southern Living on the SFA. “What we think of as our food is all mixed up with who we are as a people,” he said in his lyrical drawl. “By using food as a social tool, we can make the South a better place, a more inclusive place.”
In his role as mentor, John helped guide a whole new generation of writers and food enthusiasts. Knowing he was looking over my shoulder made me a more responsible steward of and advocate for our cuisine.
Not so long ago, in a conversation about what Southern food is today, John told me, “I think the future is promising and daunting.” Now, as then, I tend to agree. And those of us left to carry the mantle have a lot to live up to. We’ll miss you, friend.