Remembering Southern food historian John Egerton, and Austin's century-old history of Eastside farming
Two years ago this fall, I had survived serious illness and major surgery, and a column of thanks for all the good care and support I'd received from family, friends, and colleagues just poured out of my hands onto the computer keyboard with little effort. Though I've mostly been healthy, this past year has been a rough one, and while I know what I'm thankful for, I've spent the entire weekend trying to come up with something meaningful to say about it. I can tell you I'm profoundly grateful for having known John Egerton, the civil rights scholar, food writer, and co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance who passed away in Nashville last week at the age of 78. I first met Mr. Egerton over lunch at Threadgill's years ago when he was teaching a semester in the American Studies department at UT. I had begun working on a book, a sort of memoir with recipes, and our mutual friend Eddie Wilson suggested I discuss the project with Egerton. He was curious, encouraging, and avuncular, everything a writer could want in a mentor, and I left the restaurant with the sense that I'd made a new friend and that I could, and should, write the book about cooks who had inspired me. With Egerton's encouragement, I joined the Southern Foodways Alliance in the late Nineties and attended a few of the symposia when the fees and the travel were affordable. And even after I'd become disillusioned with SFA because it felt too much like one of those high school cliques I would never fit into, where all the serious career networking was fueled by the Jack Daniels I couldn't consume, I tried to maintain a relationship with Egerton. His book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History will always be a lodestar, a guiding light about the kind of food stories I want to gather and tell.
And Egerton's belief that racial and cultural reconciliation could best be achieved around the table is a great source of inspiration to me just now, at a time when our local food community has been embroiled in an ugly battle over urban farm code regulations. While it looked as though the City Council passed a fair and equitable set of regulations last week, neither the community activists who advocated more stringent regulations nor the Statesman editorial board who supported them so vocally seems satisfied with the win they are claiming, continuing to stir the pot with editorials about race, class, and euphemisms. An ancient geological formation known as the Balcones Fault runs through the Austin metro area: hardscrabble limestone with limited topsoil, plenty of cacti, and scrub oak are west of the Fault; arable farmland, such as the rich Colorado River bottom land in East Austin, is located to the east. Any farmers of any ethnic background could take one look at the soil and tell you it is farmland. The East Austin neighborhood that is now home to four small urban farms was all cultivated farmland for more than a hundred years before it gave way to warehouses, retail development, and homes. Land use changes with time. I'm thankful there is once again a small oasis of farmland in East Austin providing neighborhood children a connection to the source of good, healthy food. It's not about euphemism or racism, it's about geography.