Monday, December 2, 2013

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John Egerton (1935 -2013)

When news of John Egerton’s death came last week, I was moments away from meeting friends camped out on a Puerto Vallarta beach. I left the condo stunned, numbly descended a long and treacherous staircase the regulars dubbed The Exorcist Stairs and made my way to their group mere feet from the surf. Sitting under a palapa with a bucket of ice and beers with my toes in the sand should have been the start of a fantastic week. Instead, heartache spread from my chest, down my arms, and settled into my very bones. I was sick with sorrow.

What's in that glass, John Egerton? Tea? (Photo from the SFA's site)
John was co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and in the group’s early years I served with him on its board. John Egerton was good. He was kind. He was fiercely smart, deeply self-deprecating, and possessed of a burning sense of justice. When he wrote and spoke about the American South with such affection, he didn't shy from pointing out its flaws...and sometimes a way forward from its tangled and occasionally painful past.

Without John, there may not have been an SFA. If there had been no SFA, I might never have met people who became some of my great friends and favorite sidekicks. The might never have been a moonshine book which I wrote primarily at the insistence of author Ronni Lundy, another SFA co-founder. The ripples of Egerton's touch continue even today when I listen to music I know only because a friend from North Carolina stayed with us in July and relentlessly plied us with new tunes on Spotify. The friend? Dean McCord, VarmintBites on Twitter and a current SFA board member. Dozens of others have made my life better, people I know mostly through our connections to this singular gentleman.

Last summer, I wrote about his book Southern Food and included an anecdote about his power as a storyteller. I have so many fond memories of John Egerton, but this  — after a long bus ride and too much whiskey for everyone — is one of my favorites.
In the summer of 2004, I threw a small get-together in Birmingham, Alabama. I was on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance then, a group dedicated, in a nutshell, to celebrating the food and drink of the changing American South and the people who made it. Maybe a hundred of us were there for a small conference. After two long bus rides that day, the group was beat, so I invited a handful to come up to my hotel suite for restorative drinks and food once they'd recovered from the sun, the bourbon, and the rides.
One of those was historian John Egerton. 
A few restaurateurs showed up. Several editors from papers, magazines, and broadcast news were there. Bartenders and writers rounded out the group. A half-dozen different conversations rose and fell until one voice—one kindly, avuncular voice—dominated the room: Egerton's. 
Egerton is a charmer with a ready smile and (almost) always a kind word to say. He so mesmerized this group of experts with his tales that they soon gathered around him in a loose semicircle on the floor and spilled onto beds and chairs, absorbing warmth from the Promethean fire of his insight and wisdom.
The hole he left is gut-wrenching, but John Egerton helped to bring together uncounted strangers and make them friends. I like to think he'd chalk that up as a win.

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