For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.
I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.
As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.
I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.
John was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.
I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.
The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.
I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.
“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.
John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.
His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.
John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.
In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.
John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.