Rufus Estes: From unknown slave to eminent chef

The original copy of Rufus Estes' cookbook was published in 1911, left. A 2004 reprint included an incorrect subtitle. / 1911 photo

The original copy of Rufus Estes’ cookbook was published in 1911, left. A 2004 reprint, right, included an incorrect subtitle. / Photo of 1911 cover from the Historic America Cookbook Project, MSU Libraries. Photo of 1904 cover from Dover Publications

Rufus Estes was born a slave, but, as a free man, cooked for American presidents, foreign dignitaries and celebrities.

When the Civil War ended, Estes trained as a cook, ultimately becoming a railway chef for the Pullman Co., a prestigious position for a black man so soon after Emancipation.

And in 1911, he self-published a book of his recipes—the earliest known cookbook by a black railway chef. Estes writes that it was at the suggestion of some of those he served, whom he calls his “sta[u]nchest friends,” that he published his cookbook of more than 600 recipes.

There are few original copies of “Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc.” However, it is preserved and available online. The book was reprinted in 1999 with 60 images not in the 1911 book, and again in 2004 with an incorrect subtitle: “The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef.”

While Estes was among the earliest African-American cookbook authors, he was not the first. They were Robert Roberts (1827), Tunis Gulic Campbell (1848), Malinda Russell (1866) and Abby Fisher (1881).

Estes opens “Good Things to Eat” with what he titles “Sketch of My Life.”  He sums up the half century of American history he witnessed in one page. “I was born in Murray County, Tennessee, in 1857, a slave,” he begins. He ends with the simple statement that at the time he wrote the book he was a chef at U.S. Steel Corp. in Chicago.

His surname came from D.J. Estes who owned Rufus’ mother and her children — Rufus, six older brothers and two older sisters. His brothers fled to fight for the Union; two of them died—”a fact that wrecked [his] mother’s health somewhat,” Estes writes in his cookbook.

After the war ended, he, his mother and sisters moved in 1867 to his grandmother’s house in Nashville. He attended school for one term. “I thought I could be of better service to her and prolong her life by getting work,” he writes. For $2 a month, he milked cows, and he carried hot dinners to laborers in the field, for which each paid him 25 cents a month.

At 16, Estes began what became his life’s work in a Nashville restaurant. He worked there until he was 21, when he moved to Chicago.

engraving

“The Kitchen of a Pullman Car” is an 1883 engraving from “America Revisited” by George Sala.

From 1883 to 1897, Estes worked for the Pullman Co. Private Car Service, catering to presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, Princess Eulalie of Spain, African explorer Henry Stanley and composer Ignacy Paderewski, among others. He started as a private car attendant—”selected to handle all special parties,” he writes—and made his way up to chef.

In the foreword to his book, Estes explains that the recipes “represent the labor of years . . . day by day and month by month, under dissimilar, and, in many instances, not too favorable conditions,” probably referring to his hot, cramped railway kitchen.

The book contains “hints to kitchen maids,” such as:

  • “Perhaps you have for breakfast poached eggs on toast, deerfoot sausage or boiled ham. One of the above, with your other dishes, is enough for a person employed indoors.”
  • “Do not serve dishes at the same meal that conflict. For instance, if you have sliced tomatoes, do not serve tomato soup. If, however, you have potato soup, it would not be out of place to serve potatoes with your dinner.”
  • “Fish should never be served without a salad of some kind.”
  • “If quail or ducks are to be served for dinner, an old Indian dish, wild rice, is very desirable.”

He also includes a page on weights and measures.

“Good things to eat,” in Estes’ book, include the fancy and extravagant (Italian recipes and “Japanese or Chinese Rice”), as well as the comforting and practical (recipes for preserves and pickles to use up surplus crops), showing his rural Southern roots. He includes recipes for lobster bisque and green tomato soup; salmon mold and Louisiana cod; loin steaks with Bordeaux sauce and bone marrow, and broiled pigs feet.

A train’s route defined its menu long before Americans began to consciously eat local. It was European-inspired dining with fresh, American regional ingredients. Though Estes writes of green tomato soup and other foods of his upbringing, he never would have cooked them for the Pullman riders.

George Mortimer Pullman introduced the “hotel car” in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. It offered all the elegance and sophistication of a fine hotel within the confines of a railway car.

African-Americans had filled servant roles from railroad’s earliest days. After the Civil War, millions of newly freed slaves represented a huge labor pool for the rapidly expanding Pullman Co. Conductors were always white, but attendants, maids, porters, waiters and valets were black.

Joseph Husband, author of “The History of the Pullman Car,” named the Pullman Co. the largest employer of African-American labor in the world when he wrote his book in 1917. George M. Pullman hired blacks for all service roles because whites were accustomed to this arrangement. Pullman believed it made travel more luxurious, according to a number of sources.

Far from it for the providers of this luxury. The earliest porters received no wages, earning money only from tips and the sale of goods. Eventually they were paid, but it was a low wage for long hours and often no sleep on multiple-day journeys.

An 1894 poster shows two men in a train dining car being served by an African-American porter. /  Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

An 1894 poster shows two men in a train dining car being served by an African-American porter. / Photo from collection of U.S. Library of Congress

In the dining-car kitchen hierarchy, most chefs, or first cooks, were white; second, third, fourth cooks and so on were black. While advancement was nearly impossible for most railway employees, such as attendants and porters, it was a real prospect for cooks to advance. It seems that Estes broke the norms and advanced from attendant to chef.

This is not to imply that kitchens were havens on the train. Cooks may have been spared the racist encounters with passengers that waiters and other workers endured, but railway kitchens exacted a physical toll; they required strength for heavy lifting and the stamina to withstand temperatures reaching over 100 degrees—”not too favorable conditions,” as Estes writes.

Despite the perils of the work, railway cooks were admired in the African-American community. What African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois writes about black caterers in Philadelphia applies as well to black railway cooks. The catering business “raised a crowd of underpaid menials to become a set of self-reliant, original business men,” he writes in “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.”

The Pullman Co. operated through the early decades of the 20th century. Hotel cars were phased out in favor of separate sleeping and dining cars, which were no less elegant and sophisticated. The Pullman Co. stopped dining-car service in the early 1900s because it proved unprofitable.

Around that time, Estes left Pullman to take charge of railroad tycoon Arthur Stillwell’s $20,000 private rail car, but not before he sailed on the Empress of China with Mr. and Mrs. Nathan A. Baldwin to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Tokyo in 1894.

In 1907, Estes became chef of the subsidiary companies of the United States Steel Corp. in Chicago. He wrote his cookbook while working for U.S. Steel. The story stops there. It is unknown if this is the last place he worked or when he died. All that is known is that he saw a lot of American history from behind a kitchen stove.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Rufus Estes’ Oysters a la Poulette

Think of oysters a la poulette as a Creole oyster stew. In his book "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell," author Mark Kurlansky says that New Yorkers called this dish "oysters fricasse" and that it was served at an 1863 ball for the Russian fleet. This version comes from Rufus Estes' 1911 cookbook "Good Things to Eat".

Ingredients

  • 1 quart oysters, shucked with their liquor
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup milk
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Instructions

Look over the oysters, heat them quickly in their liquor to the boiling point, then drain and strain the liquor through cheesecloth.

In another saucepan, melt the butter, add the flour, salt and celery salt, and when blended add the strained oyster liquor, chicken stock and milk, stirring until thick and smooth. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the oysters and lemon juice, and serve at once.

Makes 6 servings

Rufus Estes’ Peanut Soup

Peanut soup has been an American dish since our country's founding. This is Rufus Estes' version. We've left the recipe in his own words (also, we think it might benefit from a shot of hot sauce). Please go online to find the complete version of Estes' 1911 cookbook Good Things to Eat.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pints raw peanuts
  • Bay leaf
  • 1 stalk of celery
  • Mace
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Croutons for serving

Instructions

Made like a dry pea soup. Soak a pint and one-half nut meats over night in 2 quarts of water. In the morning add 3 quarts of bay leaf,* stalk of celery, blade of mace and 1 slice of onion. Boil slowly for 4 or 5 hours, stirring frequently to keep from burning. Rub through a sieve and return to the fire, when heated through again add 1 cupful of cream. Serve hot with croutons.

*This may have been a typo or perhaps Estes really, really liked bay leaf. We would suggest using just two or three bay leaves.

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6 Responses to Rufus Estes: From unknown slave to eminent chef

  1. Meredith February 19, 2014 at 11:33 pm #

    Fascinating article about an intriguing character. I wish we knew the rest of the story. Also, I’m glad to know that fish should never be served without a salad. What have I been thinking? 😉

  2. Sharon February 20, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Excellent article about a man and a history I was unaware of. Loved his food advice and hope to look up a few of his recipes. Thanks for such an interesting story!

  3. Peggy February 20, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Truly informative feature about Mr. Estes. Ms. McCarthy has given us a glimpse into his life. Thank you.

  4. Sarah W. October 19, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    The Peanut Soup recipe error was likely only missing one word. It probably should have read, “3 quarts of WATER, bay leaf, stalk of celery [. . .].” At any rate, it sounds quite good and now I want to try it.

    Rufus Estes’ cookbook has been on my wishlist for a while now – I think I’m going to go look him up again. I had no idea he started his food career on the railways. It also makes me want to start a research project to figure out what happened to him after working for United States Steel Corp.

    Fascinating article.

  5. Catherine R. February 12, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    The African American history just gets richer and richer with each passing day! What a wonderful article, worthy of passing on to my sons, grandchildren, and classmates (and I will pass it on!) Thank you.

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