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  • Kahlo's Eyes

Rufus Estes: from slave to worldy chef

Digging into food history is a fascinating process. We often take eating for granted yet there is so much we can learn about each other and our histories when we look at the who, how, why, where, and when we have consumed food. For instance, we can use the lens of anthropology to learn more about the ways in which our cultures developed around foodstuffs and the exchange of such items. We can use the lens of archaeology to seek out the tools our peoples once used to make and store our ingredients. We can use the lens of history to read our written works about the foods we once enjoyed, how we made it, how we traded it, how we crossed oceans to find it, or discover new trade routes to elevate our countries with it. This is how I (ChefMama Krysia) stumbled upon Rufus Estes.

Not long ago, I took a history of cookbooks class at my university. The earliest cookbooks in the U.S. were published in New England and, generally, by women of some means and of European descent. The very first known book was American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796. As someone who is of mixed American (from both North and South) heritage, I was also drawn to look into the first published Latino, Native American, Asian American or African American cookbooks. Of these groups, African American cookbooks, or manuals, would be the first to get produced and distributed in the 1820s. In the beginning, these books were not just cookbooks but guides for domestic servants, or for their masters, with many household tips as well as recipes. One I found impressive, called Good Things to Eat: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. by Rufus Estes, was published a bit more recently and was more of a true cookbook.

Good Things to Eat was written as a standard recipe book, containing close to 600 sets of instructions, and was published by the author himself in Chicago in 1911. Estes was born a slave in Tennessee in 1857. Later, his family moved to Nashville where he was able to obtain some formal education. He started working in the restaurant industry and by the age of 26 found employment with the prestigious Pullman Car Company. Here, he grew professionally and was educated as a chef. This position led to his employment with a private car company where he went on to serve American presidents, dignitaries and the like. While many of the recipes are European in their influence, Estes did manage to include some typical Southern recipes as well as other ethnic dishes, such as “Creole Sauce” (page 109) or “Baked Bananas, Porto Rican Fashion” (page 120).

I love baked custards, especially flan, and I love coffee so when I found the recipe for Coffee Cream (page 91) I jumped at the chance to try it! Here's the recipe straight out of the book with accompanying pictures to show the process. We hope you enjoy it. We sure did!


Coffee Cream - Serves 12

  • 1 1/2 cups strong hot coffee

  • 1 tablespoon of gelatin

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • 2/3 cup sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt

  • 3 egg yolks, beaten until light

  • 3 egg whites, beaten until stiff


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