Monday, January 18, 2010

America’s First Black Top Chef

By Pat Tanner

Today we take for granted that America’s most acclaimed restaurant chefs come in all colors. Yet it wasn’t that many decades ago that chefs of color, no matter how talented, worked in obscurity. The first one to break through, at least in recent memory, was Patrick Clark, who won a James Beard Award in 1995, just three years before his untimely death at the age of 42.

A few years ago I came across another aspect of the African-American culinary experience: the legions of dining car chefs and attendants, mostly black, employed by the Pullman Company to service its luxury trains from the late 19th century to well into the 20th. Among them was Rufus Estes, who was born a slave in Tennessee 1857. He worked his way up from Pullman porter to spend much of his working life as a chef handling special parties in private cars. At a time when most fine restaurants would not hire a black chef, Estes cooked for Presidents Cleveland and Harrison, the Polish pianist Paderewski, and the African explorer Stanley, as well as European royalty.

We know this and a bit more because Estes went on to write the first cookbook by an African-American chef. The book’s elegant recipes provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of dining car chefs, who in the Estes’ days used wood and coal stoves for heat and blocks of ice for refrigeration. Many recipes are startlingly contemporary, such as an omelet made with squash blossoms and turkey stuffed with black truffles.

The recipe below, reprinted almost exactly as it appears in “Good Things to Eat,” is for a refined but easy to make citrus salad with blue cheese dressing. Although Estes’ recipes don’t include modern amenities such as a separate list of ingredients or the number of servings, home cooks will have no trouble replicating this one. Of course, few people these days bother to peel grapes. (Just cut seedless green grapes in half and call it a day.)

“Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat” (Dover Publications 2004; first issued by Rufus Estes in 1911)

Cut one grapefruit and two oranges in sections and free from seeds and membrane. Skin and seed one cup white grapes and cut one-third cup pecan nutmeats in small pieces. Mix ingredients, arrange on a bed of romaine and pour over the following dressing: [In advance] mix four tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon grape juice, one tablespoon grape vinegar, one-fourth teaspoon paprika, one-eighth teaspoon pepper and one tablespoon finely chopped Roquefort cheese. This dressing should stand in the icebox four or five hours to become seasoned.

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