2003 Lifetime Achievement Award – John Egerton
For me the Southern Foodways Alliance had its origin in a phone call from John Egerton. I'm sure there were discussions about this organization, long before John called me. I'm sure his voice was not the only one heard in those talks. But I hope you'll indulge me if, at least on this occasion, I choose to see this whole thing – the organization, its vision and its purpose–as having evolved in the pages of John Egerton's books.
In Generations, as he details the story of a octogenarian Kentucky couple from its ancestors through its great and great, great grandchildren, he exemplifies the faith we have in the oral tradition, in the conviction that we can believe what the old folks have told us even before the historians and social scientists have found the documentation to prove it.
In 1995's Speak Now Against the Day, he chronicles the pre-history of the civil rights movement, that generation of Southerners before Martin Luther King who understood that racism was wrong and its days limited. In that work, he anticipates the prophetic mission of this organization, our belief that it doesn't matter whether the nation is ready to celebrate our region, its food and its people, we are ready to do so, confident that it is not only appropriate, but necessary.
In his 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie; the Southernization of America, he laments, as we do, the loss of regional difference and identity.
Excessive preoccupation with the South as a separate entity is a bore and a diversion; but the opposite danger is in an assimilation of regions that spreads and perpetuates the banal and the venal while it melts the great and valuable diversity of America into a homogenized puree.
. . . he writes, and in so doing encourages and celebration and perpetuation of the best of our distinctions and eradication of the worst of our differences.
Southern Food, his 1987 master work on our cherished subject, reads like the long version of our symposium program. The words are served in courses with scholarship and reminiscence to separate them. In the margins, like leitmotifs, nuggets from other books and gems from the oral tradition give the work added resonance. And through out the work, in his inclusion of stories and recipes from Southerners of various hues, races, creeds and inclinations, he sounds his most consistent theme. His belief and our belief that in the breaking of our various breads together there lies the possibility of real unity, of a racial and regional reconciliation that is indeed the only hope of the region and this nation.
I will conclude this tribute, with his words, the ones he used to conclude Southern Food:
Whatever else they may have to offer, many Southerners can still set a fine table and surround it with conversation and laughter and love. On such occasions, special things can happen, and nothing – not even the fewness of the vittles – can keep those present from receiving and enjoying an elegant sufficiency. It's an old Southern skill, a habit, a custom, a tradition, and it deserves to last as long as the corn grows tall.
My friends, it is my honor to present the 2003 Southern Foodways Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award to John Egerton.
– Lolis Eric Elie
Photos by Larry Smith, East Tennessee State University. Original artwork by Blair Hobbs.