Lessons on Black Food History From Rufus Estes’ ‘Good Things to Eat’
What the first cookbook from an African American chef teaches us
Toni Tipton-Martin’s lauded cookbook Jubilee, named one of the best cookbooks of 2019 by numerous publications, is one of the most significant efforts to share the stories and recipes of the chefs who created and shaped African American cooking — and an American culinary landscape that people from endless backgrounds know and love.
Completed and released in the midst of the Trump presidency, which has resolved to dismantle basic democracy, obfuscate facts and reason, and vilify the millions of minorities who have built, defined, and sustained this country, Jubilee serves as a frustrating yet powerful reminder that this country’s ills and sins have never healed or been atoned for, and a true reckoning has never happened.
Yet many came before Tipton-Martin. For decades, the work of countless African American chefs has been overlooked and undervalued; that is, until black food historians and culinary experts like Tipton-Martin began to work to reclaim these invaluable stories. Though Africans touched American soil 292 years earlier, hundreds of cookbooks had been written and published by white American authors during the 18th and 19th centuries, and African Americans had been farming, preparing, and cooking food for millions of Americans for centuries. Rufus Estes was one of the first, with Good Things to Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef.
Written during the Taft administration, Estes, who was born into slavery in Tennessee, outlined recipes for just about everything you could think of — decadent soups; satisfying lunch dishes; cakes, crullers, and eclairs; and delights like the Scotch egg, shrimp butter, and blackberry vinegar. As Taft used his inaugural address to declare his refusal to appoint Blacks to federal jobs and enacted his “Southern Policy” of removing black leaders from office across the South, Estes was telling readers how to remove sardine skins, fork fish from the bone, boil peanuts, and scallop apples. In short, he was telling them how to make good things to eat.
A chef on the luxurious Pullman railway cars in the 1880s, Estes admits his susceptibility to human…