I heard the news about John Egerton while sitting around a kitchen table in New Orleans.
It was Thursday morning, and I had already written his name on my to-do list for the following Monday. We were supposed to have lunch. But I’d kept moving his name over to the next day’s list, and the next, like you do with those items that seem needed but non-urgent.
Looking back, one of the best lunches I had with John happened about four years ago. He leaned over our plates of pulled pork with a lowered voice of concern, as he tended to do, and told me he thought people were forgetting how to cook. He wanted me to write a series about cooking at home. And when the author of “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History” (among other books) had an idea, you better believe I listened.
Go into the homes of participants, he told me. Cook with them, interview them and record their recipes to show that cooking can be simple, healthful and fun.
“Let’s start with you, then,” I said.
He didn’t like that idea as much.
John preferred to keep the focus on others, but eventually he obliged. With the first installment of “Nashville Cooks,” he prepared a humble pot of black-eyed peas with stewed tomatoes and cornbread dodgers. He told
stories about writing on race and talked about the table as a place where we can all come together and understand each other a little better.
We figured the series would run for six months. But editors — and readers — kept it alive for more than three years. After John, it included a Kurdish-American mother, a hip-hop artist (and homemade hot pocket connoisseur), a Peruvian immigrant, among others.
Readers wrote to say they
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trusted the recipes from “real people” in “real kitchens.” I felt like those stories helped people in a small way, and for that, thanks goes to John.
In New Orleans, it felt strange at first processing bad news while on a vacation with friends who didn’t know him. But I figured soon enough that in New Orleans, people don’t mourn lives as much as they celebrate them. So I toasted him with my chicory coffee.
I thought of him again with the first bite of gumbo at Mr. B’s, and with messy fingers over a bib and barbecue shrimp. I lifted a Sazerac to him, and my sweet friends did the same. I had him in mind with spoonfuls of turtle soup and bites of trout meuniere amandine at Galatoire’s, a restaurant he wrote about in his book. The institution felt too over-the-top for the John I knew, though, so on the way out of town, we made a final stop at Willie Mae’s Scotch House on the recommendation from a friend.
John had helped rebuild the soul food restaurant after Hurricane Katrina with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization he helped found. It’s another way I’m thankful for John. When I discovered the group at my first Southern Foodways symposium in 2009, I rushed home and told everyone I knew that I had finally found my people.
At Willie Mae’s, the back dining room was empty and quiet. We scooped up a peppery plate of butter beans with the chicken. That’s where the homage felt right.
On this trip, I kept wondering what stories he would have found in the food and people. At Mr. B’s our young server flat refused to take my plate with just a thimble-sized pond of roux remaining. “Sop it up,” he insisted making a motion of bread dragging through gravy before bringing me another loaf. John wasn’t into the excesses of food, so I wondered if he’d rather hear the story of that persistent man.
One of the last times I spoke with John, he called after hearing I had decided to leave The Tennessean.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” he told me. “You can’t quit your day job.”
He didn’t know that my resignation had been set into motion. There could be no turning back. But of course his words sent me into a tailspin of doubt. I hadn’t consulted him first, maybe because I knew what he would say.
“It’s alright,” he told me a few weeks later, again on the phone, and we planned to have lunch to talk about it. I looked forward to our meeting, because I wanted to give him my reasons for leaving. I wanted to hear his reasons why he thought I should stay. I wanted to sop up every bit of his advice on how to move forward.
But it turns out the advice will have to come from the memories of how he lived and the stories he told both in person and on the page. Not just in how to make a cornbread dodger but in how to think and question, and how to help others feel like their stories and work matters.
So even though I can never give him my explanation, I promise now to give him my best.