Estes, Rufus 1857–19(?)(?)
Rufus Estes 1857–19(?)(?)
In 1911, a black Chicagoan named Rufus Estes published his own cookbook, Good Things to Eat as Recommended by Rufus. Estes had worked for years as a chef in deluxe private railroad cars, where he honed his culinary skills preparing lavish meals for industry magnates and even American presidents. Estes ran a more stationary kitchen as a caterer to executives with the U.S. Steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world, by the time his cookbook appeared. Sadly, this man described in a black Chicago newspaper as “one of the best known chefs of Chicago” died in obscurity.
It is known that Estes was born a slave in Murray County, Tennessee in 1857. His surname was that of the family who owned his mother and her nine children. But the outbreak of civil war over slavery and states’ rights in 1861 caused his brothers—like many other slaves—to flee to the Northern side and its Union Army. While slavery remained in place, however, for the next few years, Estes and those left behind were even more put-upon. “This left us little folks to bear the burdens,” Estes said of the absence of his brothers in the introduction to Good Things to Eat. “At the age of five I had to carry water from the spring about a quarter of a mile from the house, drive the cows to and from the pastures, mind the calves, gather chips, etc.”
Two of Estes’s brothers died in the war, and as a child he saw that the heartache rapidly ruined his mother’s health. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he vowed to make her life easier by going to work to support her. When he was ten, the family moved to Nashville to be near a grandmother. There Estes attended school for one term, but soon began working long hours at various odd jobs. He milked cows for his neighbors, for which he was paid two dollars a month, and later in the day carried hot dinners to field laborers, who each paid him 25 cents. When he was sixteen, he was hired by a Nashville restaurant owner named Hemphill, and began learning the kitchen business in earnest. He spent five years there, and by 1881 had relocated to Chicago. There he found work at an establishment at 77 Clark Street, where he earned ten dollars a week.
In 1883, Estes was hired by the Pullman Private Car Service in Chicago. He spent the next fourteen years with the company, working on the opulent private railroad cars that carried celebrities, presidents, and the very wealthy back and forth across the continent. Estes’s culinary skills soon gained him a measure of renown, and the company began placing traveling VIPs and foreign dignitaries in his car exclusively. He prepared dinners for Henry Stanley, the famed African explorer, presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, Adelina Patti—a famed opera singer in her day—and Polish concert pianist and future prime minister Ignace Paderewski. In 1894, Estes sailed from Vancouver to Japan with a Mr. and Mrs. Nathan A. Baldwin to witness Tokyo’s Cherry Blossom Festival.
Estes left the Pullman Company in 1897 when the president of the Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gould railroad, Arthur Sitwell, hired him to run his private railroad car. The car had cost $20,000, an extravagant
Born in 1857, in Murray County, TN; date of death unknown.
Career: Chef. Born into slavery; worked in a Nashville, TN restaurant, 1873-78; employed in restaurant in Chicago, IL, after 1881; Pullman Railroad Car Service, 1883, chef in VIP dining car until 1897; Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gould railroad, chef in private car of company president, 1897-99, remained in charge of car under new ownership until 1907; U.S. Steel Corporation, Chicago, chef for subsidiary companies after 1907; published Good Things to Eat as Recommended by Rufus, 1911 .
expenditure at the time, and like other opulent rolling suites, boasted leaded glass, hand carved wood fixtures, and velvet upholstery. Estes cooked for Sitwell for the next seventeen months, but the railroad company was undergoing financial troubles, and went into receivership. When it was sold to the John W. Gates syndicate, Estes’s talents were held in such esteem that he was kept on staff. Gates, who had made his fortune from barbed-wire fencing, was famed for his speculative dare and even nicknamed “Bet a Million” in the press. Gates also lavished praise upon Estes’s culinary expertise, and encouraged him to gather his recipes into a cookbook.
After 1907, Estes settled down to a kitchen that was not on wheels when he became chef of the executive dining room at the U.S. Steel Corporation’s subsidiary companies in Chicago, with which Gates was also affiliated. Estes lived in quarters above the Appomattox, a private black Republican club, and by 1911, after nearly a decade of work, published Good Things to Eat. It contained 22 chapters and 591 recipes, but they were unlike the lengthy, detailed recipes found in contemporary cookbooks. Instead, Estes gave a few specific measurements and techniques in single paragraphs. A recipe for fried chicken reads: “Cut up two chickens. Put a quarter of a pound of butter, mixed with a spoonful of flour, into a saucepan with pepper, salt, a little vinegar, parsley, green onions, carrots and turnips, into a saucepan (sic) and heat. Steep the chicken in this marinade three hours, having dried the pieces and floured them. Fry a good brown. Garnish with fried parsley.” A suggestion before the chapter notes that “Poultry intended for dinner should be killed the night before…. When cleaning the inside of poultry or game be sure not to break the gall bladder, for it will give a bitter taste to the meat.”
Good Things to Eat is filled with unusual recipes that provide a glimpse into executive dining habits of the early twentieth century. Standard fish, fowl, and salad fare is accompanied by instructions for preparing broiled sheep’s kidneys, cauliflower mayonnaise, codfish hash, forced meatballs for turtle soup, boiled onions with cream, and baked cherry pudding. Estes even included a chapter of recipes appropriate for the Lenten season. When it was published in 1911, an announcement in the Chicago Defender, the city’s African-American newspaper, lauded Estes as a master of his craft and described an auction that took place, among Illinois Steel Company executives, for a signed first copy of the first edition. Few copies of the book survived, however. Estes was known to have been married briefly, but had no children. Both the date and circumstances of his death are unknown.
Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus: A Collection of Practical recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc., original edition published by the author, 1911, new edition, Howling at the Moon Press, 1999.
Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus: A Collection of Practical recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc., edited by D. J. Frienz, Howling at the Moon Press, 1999.
Florida Times-Union, July 22, 1999, p. F3.
News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), March 1, 2000, p. F1.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 18, 2000, p. 6F.
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