Lolis Elie / June 2007
Food Arts presents the June 2007 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Egerton, the writer and culinary activist whose pioneering 1987 book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, married the regions, recipes, and peoples of the South into one cohesive insightful volume. The author of nearly a dozen books on the region, he's also a founding director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA).
Egerton was born in Atlanta, raised in Cadiz, Kentucky, and has settled now in Nashville. But his qualifications for his life's work in Southern food are not merely geographical. He has spent decades chronicling the evolution of the South from an oft-denigrated bastion of racial segregation to the fastest growing, most influential region of the United States. Most of his books have nothing to do with food: State Universities and Black Americans (1969), A Mind to Stay Here: Profiles from the South (1970), The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974), Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South (1991), Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). Yet Egerton's explorations of the cultural and political landscape form the backbone of his food writing. And Southern Food stands out among books on the subject, not merely for its encyclopedic range but also for its equal inclusion of all the contributors to the Southern culinary tradition, without distinction of race, color, or any previous condition of servitude.
"It's rich, but it's also very poor. It's segregated, but it's integrated," he says. "That's the South. That's the food."
"I never had any intention of writing a book about food. But I had it in mind for a long time that there was a good book to be written about food in the South because cookbook writers didn't have much to say about history, and historians, for the most part, really didn't take food seriously," he says.
Egerton has become an elder statesman of American food studies. His work in founding the SFA has helped to institutionalize his work. Indeed, the mission statement of the SFA reads as if it were taken directly from the pages of Egerton's work. "The SFA documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor--all who gather"may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation."
Working with SFA volunteers, Egerton spent many weekends in post—Hurricane Katrina New Orleans rebuilding Willie Mae's Scotch House, a classic soul food restaurant that was all but lost in the floodwaters. It is work he is drawn to in part out of fear that the food and region he loves may be changing and evolving out of existence.
"I ended that book by saying the food was endangered. It's changed some since then. It's probably more endangered if we think of it in traditional terms. But it thrives more—much like the South—as it seems less Southern. The food is really a metaphor for the region, and a pretty close parallel."