We have lost a friend, and the South has lost a unique voice for justice…

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John Egerton passed away late last year, and we offer our heartfelt condolences to all of those who love their Southern food with a side of social justice.

“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 generations of Southerners to do better by our region and by our common man.”

The words of John T. Edge, Southern Foodways Alliance, from his eulogy for the late John Egerton, Nashville, TN, 

The Fair Food movement has lost a dear, dear friend.  In fact, we lost him late last year, and we are late in honoring him and his remarkable life, and in mourning his untimely passing.  But we are sharing his story today so that those who may not have had the pleasure of knowing John might know, and appreciate, what a truly uncommon man has left us.

John Egerton wore many hats over his life — author and academic, civil rights activist, cultural critic and food writer — but it was his complex relationship with his native South that ultimately defined his life, his work, and his unique contribution to the world.  From the New York Times obituary:

A son of the South who grew up when the Ku Klux Klan was almost as mainstream there as the Rotary Club, Mr. Egerton (pronounced EDGE-er-ton) used the written word, humility and ultimately the power of the Southern table to champion racial reconciliation and lead a new generation of writers and cooks to look beyond clichés and divisions to understand the region.

“He could be deeply pessimistic about this place and a minute later, with a whiskey in his hand and his arm around your neck, would be regaling you with tales of the people and the places that he loved,” said John T. Edge, who, in 1999, along with Mr. Egerton and a group of others, created the Southern Foodways Alliance, an irreverent but academic institution — it is anchored at the University of Mississippi — dedicated to Southern food and culture…  read more 

He was the author of many great books, including “Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South,” which chronicled the history of the men and women of the 1930’s and 1940’s who helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement that was to come twenty years later and change the South forever.  That book won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, one of his many awards for his contribution to our collective understanding of the South and its struggles.  He worked with film and with the written word, but it was food that ultimately would cement his legacy.   John was a passionate proponent of the notion that food is a thing that unites us across the many social and economic divides that define the South, and he would share his vision of a common table — piled high with Southern specialties like barbecue, cured ham, and whiskey — where all are created equal, with countless like-minded Southerners over the final three decades of his life.  Again, from the Times obituary:

For many, his masterwork was “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” a breezy but detailed study published in 1987. He used the book to demonstrate that food is a potent way to achieve racial reconciliation, a belief he imparted to the cooks and food writers he mentored.

“In a very powerful way he connected social justice and food as the essential ingredients for understanding the American South,” said William Ferris, an author and professor of Southern culture at the University of North Carolina,  Chapel Hill.

We entered into John’s world when the organization he helped found in 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), selected the CIW to receive the 2012 John Egerton Award for our work connecting food and civil rights in the South. Before that time, we had somehow never crossed paths, despite the fact that the South is not home to a multitude of food movements, not to mention food movements with a particular focus on the intersection of food, culture, and civil rights.  There is no Slow Food branch in Oxford, Mississippi, where the Southern Foodways Alliance is based.  But once we managed to come into contact, it was clear that the CIW and the SFA were kindred spirits.  A strong alliance, and even an deeper friendship, was born.

The last time we saw John was in the first days of the March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food.  He joined us for several days to march and to film the march for a video project he and SFA were working on.  He was, on those days, as we will remember him always: Happy, busy, thoughtful, fun, and charged with energy from being part of a movement of poor people fighting for justice in his beloved — and, as he knew all too well, benighted — South. 

Here’s an excerpt from a short reflection by John on his last trip to Immokalee, written for the SFA blog.  It describes his arrival at the launch of the march in Ft. Myers, and reflects his love of diversity — a love which the Fair Food Movement requited in spades — and his talent for conveying a scene with words:

I met University of Mississippi filmmaker Rex Jones in Fort Myers (some 35 miles from Immokalee) on February 28. We found ourselves in the midst of a panoramic scene enlivened by a surprisingly broad and diverse cast of characters—Latino, Haitian, Native American, Guatemalan, migrants and immigrants, Catholics and Protestants, pickers and packers, a few gringos (of varied colors), walkers and bikers, casino habitués, little kids, old people, sheriff’s deputies, private security officers, and great flocks of snowbirds fluttering around the coastal periphery (not to be confused with the unruly hover of vultures atop the dumpsters in Immokalee).

We will miss John Egerton dearly.  He should not be gone.  The hole he leaves behind will not, if ever, be easily filled.  

For those of you who would like to read more about his life and his work, you should visit the Southern Foodways Alliance website.  Just take your time and fish around.  Get lost down one of the many alleyways of that fine collection of articles and reflections on Southern food and culture and learn a little something new.  John would love that.