Savoring History: A Brief Glimpse of Rufus Estes
I came to the Fales Library downtown with a group of fellow writers during a writing retreat in New York city. Easily one of my top 5 favorite libraries, Fales stores contemporary objects and texts that are nothing short of magical and fantastic. It was at Fales where I got to see an old file cabinet that once belonged to Kathleen Hanna.
I had a moment.
It was also at Fales that I received a copy of a hefty anthology titled 101 Classic Cookbooks: 501 Classic Recipes, edited by the Director of the Fales Library, and leader of our private tour, Marvin J. Taylor. This anthology is a compendium of the most influential cookbooks and recipes written during the twentieth century. These cookbooks and recipes, and the chefs and writers who are at their very heart, tell their own story of American history - one that is far more compelling than any told in a textbook, I assure you.
Which brings me to Rufus Estes.
In an article written by Jessica B. Harris in 101 Classic Cookbooks, Harris discusses a cookbook called Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus Estes. Written in 1911, Rufus's work is equally a cookbook and a memoir, a piece of life writing that reflects his harrowing experience, growing up in slavery, then discovering his entrepreneurial spirit after Emancipation. In a "Sketch of My Life," the first section of Good Things to Eat, we learn that he was born in Murray County, Tennessee in 1857, but later he and his family moved to Nashville, where he entered into the food service industry at 16 and found his passion working at a restaurant called Hemphill, where he stayed for 5 years, learning and perfecting his trade.
At 20, Estes moved to Chicago. The year was 1881, the same year another African American culinary artist and author, Abby Fisher, published What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, as we learn from B. Harris. We can see, from our advantageous seats in the present, the intersecting threads of time, place, and people that helped create Good Things to Eat; Fisher's text, Estes's entrepreneurial spirit, all bubbling together a little less than twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for a mass exodus from the South to the West. It was destiny, and it was conducted from these weaving threads and the opportunities Estes created for himself and took advantage of.
B. Harris points out that we know little of Estes outside of this text, but notes that we learn "volumes" about him from his recipes, directions, and serving suggestions contained within. Commenting on the incredible gap of tangible objects we have documenting African American experience during this time, B. Harris states that Estes's story is"representative of the untold hundreds of African American cooks and chefs of the first quarter of the twentieth century"that we will forever be deprived of.
Dedicated and passionate to his craft, the tone of Estes's writing is that of a confident and experienced artist:
"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."
In the brief snippets B. Harris and facsimile images of his cookbook provide us, we see his modern palette and creative flair while cooking:
'If quail or ducks are to be served for dinner, an old Indian dish, wild rice, is very desirable."
What I would give to be able to flip through those pages and learn more of his life, his childhood, his time working for the Pullman company in 1883, where he became one of its top chefs, serving other historical figures like Presidents Harrison and Cleveland, as well as the Princess of Spain.
I'm grateful to people like Marvin and his co-editor Clark Wolf, and to institutions like the Fales library for housing and preserving these kinds of works. I'm grateful for the publication of anthologies like this for more people to access the many fantastic and magical objects and texts stored within the many libraries across our nation and across the world. My one wish would be that more people be able to access libraries such as these, to peruse unique and highly specialized collections, such as theirs. Perhaps a quarterly open-to-the-public private library weekend where people can have access to such treasures.
That is perhaps the most powerful lesson that Estes's cookbook leaves us with - more than his expert recipes and what is surely a very powerful biography of his life - the lesson of having so little of him to treasure because of a violent and cruel part of our American past.
So while I wait for my brilliant idea for an internationally recognized quarterly weekend of open-to-the-public-private-library days (that will surely need to be renamed to something far more catchy), I will lovingly hold onto my copy of 101 Classic Cookbooks, a treasure in-and-of itself.