John Egerton dies at 78; author chronicled the South's thorny past

If John Egerton liked you — and he liked nearly everyone he met — he might have hauled out an antique contraption called a biscuit brake, whipped up a batch of special unleavened dough and cajoled you into cranking the device while he related the story behind beaten biscuits, an old Southern favorite.

He would tell you that in the pre-mechanical days the dough would be beaten with a mallet or even the side of an ax — an arduous task left to slave cooks in wealthy antebellum households. After the brake was invented, it did the hard work, saving beaten biscuits from extinction.

This exercise was, for Egerton, not only about good eating: It was a form of communion with the South's thorny past.

"Not infrequently," Egerton wrote in his book "Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History," published in 1987, "Southern food now unlocks the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex. On such occasions, a place at the table is like a ringside seat at the historical and ongoing drama of life in the region."

Egerton, an author and journalist whose other tour de force was "Speak Now Against the Day" (1995), a sprawling chronicle of the Southerners, both blacks and whites, who challenged the racial status quo a generation before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died Nov. 21 in Nashville. He was 78.

The cause was believed to be a heart attack, said his son Brooks Egerton.

Egerton "was a writer and thinker from the American South who used writing and thinking about food to address bigger issues," said John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, an organization Egerton helped found in 1999 to study Southern food and culture. "Food was one way he worked as a progressive force in a troubled region."

The son of a traveling salesman, Egerton was born in Atlanta on June 14, 1935, when "separate but equal" ruled the South. His family moved frequently, ending up in the small western Kentucky town of Cadiz. After serving in the Army, Egerton graduated in 1958 from the University of Kentucky, where he also earned a master's in political science in 1960.

He began his journalism career in 1965 when he moved to Nashville to write for the Southern Education Reporting Service, which covered the battles over school desegregation in the South. He branched out to magazine journalism and, eventually, books, starting with "A Mind to Stay Here," a collection of profiles of Southerners who were fighting segregation, including John Lewis, Will Campbell and Fannie Lou Hamer.

He wound up writing nearly a dozen books, including "The Americanization of Dixie" (1974), which described the erosion of the South's identity, and "Generations" (1983), which profiled an Appalachian couple in their 80s and their extensive clan.

"There were no unimportant people or stories to John," said Rachel Lawson, who made a documentary with Egerton about the desegregation of Nashville schools. "When he got to those people they knew they had someone who ... was really going to listen to their story and get it."

He wrote "Southern Food" with his wife of 56 years, Ann Bleidt Egerton, who was his high school sweetheart. Besides his wife and son Brooks, he is survived by son March Egerton, a brother, a sister and four grandchildren.

An imaginative, affectionate hybrid of recipes and cultural history, "Southern Food" begins with a discussion of corn and hogs in colonial Virginia and moves on to new foods from Africa such as okra and black-eyed peas and the influences of Native Americans and European settlers. The recipes are delightfully diverse, covering such topics as how to cook squirrel, pickle watermelon rinds and make peanut soup. "I defy anyone to read so much as a page of 'Southern Food' without developing a powerful longing for a plate of barbecue, Brunswick stew and hush puppies," Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review for the Washington Post.

Throughout, Egerton acknowledges the roles of race and class in the South's culinary journey. "White mistresses may have had favorite recipes they prepared themselves," he wrote, "but wherever there was sumptuous hospitality and elegant service and distinctive cookery, there was almost certain to be a platoon of black cooks and servants to do the lion's share of work."

His most ambitious book was "Speak Now Against the Day," a painstaking look at the men and women who "tried to tell us, 25 or 30 years before Brown [vs. the Board of Education], that we had a big problem — and it was going to tear us up if we didn't fix it." These prophets of the movement included journalists like Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, who lambasted the Ku Klux Klan, and Myles Horton, who founded the activist Highlander Folk School in Appalachia.

The New York Times praised the work for "breathing life into the generation that brought the South to the brink of the civil rights movement," while Washington Monthly called it "a depressing story, powerfully told ... [that] shoots bullets through whatever case anyone could ever hope to make that the South might have dealt with its racial ills on its own."

Egerton said writing about the South — whether its food or its Jim Crow legacy — was a way to understand what it meant to be a Southerner in the 20th century.

"This is my history," Egerton told the Charlotte Observer in 1995. "I grew up right here, during the time when all these things were happening, and I didn't know it. The stories of all these people will be in my head forever."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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