This Former Slave Helped Teach America How To Cook
On September 25, 1939, an 82-year-old man named Rufus Estes died in Los Angeles after a brief illness. Nobody at any of the major L.A. newspapers wrote a eulogy or remarked on his passing but Estes left behind a remarkable legacy. Much of it can be found in Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus, considered by most culinary historians to be one of the first cookbooks written by a black chef. (Robert Roberts, Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher, who wrote earlier cookbooks, were home chefs who, in some cases, owned food businesses.)
His long life had begun across the country, before the Civil War. "I was born in Murray County, Tennessee, in 1857, a slave," he wrote in Good Things to Eat. "I was given the name of my master, D. J. Estes, who owned my mother's family, consisting of seven boys and two girls, I being the youngest of the family."
Estes was five when the Civil War began. His older brothers scattered, as did most of the men he knew, leaving, "us little folks to bear the burdens." After the war, Estes moved to Nashville with his mother and was able to attend school for one term, learning to read and write.
As a teenager, Estes got a job as a cook's assistant in Hemphill's Restaurant in Nashville, which served gourmet European-style food. According to David S. Shields, author of The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining, Hemphill's was Nashville's premier eatery, the "most cosmopolitan kitchen his native region possessed."
In 1881, Estes moved to Chicago, along with thousands of other former slaves who were heading north in the late 19th century. He soon found a job as chief line cook for chef Charles Martell, who ran a celebrated French restaurant in Chicago. Here, Estes perfected his gourmet cooking skills, which included the art of saucing. In Good Things to Eat, he includes a whole section on sauces, including gooseberry sauce, lobster butter, royal sauce and sauce tartare.
Only two years later, at age 26, Estes was employed by the Pullman Company. Founded in 1867 by George Pullman, it built and operated luxury rail cars that contained parlors, dining rooms and sleeping chambers. Pullman was most famous for his "palace cars," private rail cars kitted out in full Gilded Age style and attached to normal commercial trains, with a retinue of porters provided. If Elon Musk were a robber baron from America's original Gilded Age, this is probably how he'd travel.
Pullman employed many former slaves as porters and chefs, leading to the popular quip, "Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired 'em." A job on a Pullman car not only offered decent wages and steady employment, it was an opportunity to see the United States.
Pullman porters were exclusively black until the mid-20th century, as were most of the company's maids, chefs and waiters (he conductors were white). Pullman employees "were highly respected within the community," historian Spencer Crew told Smithsonian.com. "They became in many ways the middle-class of the African-American community." It wasn't all marbled chicken and duck consommé. Pullman employees faced an enormous amount of racism and they worked punishing hours serving predominantly white guests who often treated them in a demeaning manner.
In Los Angeles, many porters lived at The American Hotel, which opened in 1905 as a small, well-appointed establishment catering to black residents. It was at 303 South Hewitt Street, near the end of the rail lines in what is now the Arts District of downtown L.A.
Estes' talents as a chef quickly made him a star on the Pullman line. From 1883 to 1897 he perfected his craft. He served three meals a day to many of the Victorian era's most famous luminaries, on private cars that ferried them around the country. He wrote:
I was selected to handle all special parties. Among the distinguished people who traveled in my care were Stanley, the African explorer; President Cleveland; President Harrison; Adelina Patti, the noted singer of the world at that time; Booth and Barrett, Modjeski and Paderewski. I also had charge of the car for Princess Eulalie of Spain... In 1894 I set sail from Vancouver on the Empress of China with Mr. and Mrs. Nathan A. Baldwin for Japan, visiting the Cherry Blossom Festival at Tokyo. In 1897, Mr. Arthur Stillwell, at that time president of the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gould Railroad, gave me charge of his magnificent $20,000 private car.
Stillwell eventually lost the car to businessman John Gates, who Estes worked with for eight years before tiring of the traveling life. He settled in Chicago, where he became the corporate chef at the Illinois Steel Company.
According to Shields, Estes, known affectionately as "Captain Rufus," was one of Chicago's best-known chefs. He was also active in the city's large black community and was a member of the Republican Appomattox Club, where he catered club events.
Estes's former employer and good friend, John Gates, encouraged him to write a cookbook to preserve his recipes. In 1911, Estes published Good Things to Eat. Only 11 original copies of the book survive but it has been reprinted and is also available online. In the preface, Estes wrote:
That the average parent is blind to the faults of its offspring is a fact so obvious that in attempting to prove or controvert it time and logic are both wasted... The author, however, has honestly striven to avoid this common prejudice. This book, the child of his brain... is far from perfect; but he is satisfied that, notwithstanding its apparent shortcomings, it will serve in a humble way some useful purpose. The recipes given in the following pages represent the labor of years. Their worth has been demonstrated, not experimentally, but by actual tests, day by day and month by month, under dissimilar, and, in many instances, not too favorable conditions.
The cookbook includes common sense cooking advice and 591 recipes, which Toni Tipton-Martin, historian and author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, writes, "illustrate a sophisticated and intelligent style."
These recipes combine French and American cooking with some of Estes's Southern favorites — green tomato pie, Brunswick stew, corn fritters, macaroni with apricots and maple parfait. Other dishes — jellied cucumber, baked milk, peanut meatose, pig's ear lyonnaise, whole wheat pudding, chestnut soup — are relics of a bygone time.
Some of the recipes don't include specific baking times or cooking temperatures. Many were developed during the years Estes spent in a crowded rail car, working in tight quarters with limited ingredients.
"The contents," Shields explains, "were shaped to a large extent to the larder available on the railroads, (more root vegetables than leafy greens, more stockyard beef than saltwater fish). The dessert section was canted to pies rather than confections and cakes; the breakfasts featured eggs and griddle cakes."
Here's Estes's recipe for a dessert he calls Aunt Amy's Cake:
Take two eggs, one and one-half cups of sugar, one cup of sour milk, one-half cup of butter, two cups of flour and one teaspoonful of soda. Spice to taste. This is a good cake and one which is also inexpensive in baking.
Soon after the publication of Good Things to Eat, an aging Estes, tired of Chicago winters, moved to Los Angeles, which he had visited over the years. Many former Pullman employees end up living here. Lee Gibson, thought to be the oldest surviving Pullman porter, died in Los Angeles in 2016, at the age of 106.
By 1920, census and voter records show that Estes, a widower, was boarding at 449 Ceres Avenue in Los Angeles. In 1930, he had moved to 3813 Central Avenue and was employed as a chef at a restaurant. He moved several times and was employed as a chef until 1938, a year before he passed away. We know woefully little about his life in Los Angeles, the places he cooked while he was here and the people he fed.
"One of the pleasures in life to the normal man is good eating," he wrote in Good Things to Eat, "and if it be true that real happiness consists in making others happy, the author can at least feel a sense of gratification in the thought that his attempts to satisfy the cravings of the inner man have not been wholly unappreciated by the many that he has had the pleasure of serving — some of whom are now his staunchest friends."