Most everyone has a dish they are known for or a restaurant they love to visit. To say we love eating good things is an understatement. This is nothing new. As a matter of fact, one Maury County native actually wrote an entire book of Good Things to Eat. This book, published in 1911 by Rufus Estes, was the first cookbook written by an African-American chef.
In the book, the author included a short sketch of his life. From this sketch, we learn Rufus Estes was born into slavery in Maury County in 1857. Estes was the name of Rufus’ master, a man named D. J. Estes. Rufus was held in bondage along with his mother and siblings—a family of seven boys and two girls.
During the Civil War, Rufus’ older brothers “ran off,” as he put it, and “joined the Yankees.” He lamented, “This left us little folks to bear the burdens. 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.” In these conditions, young Rufus toiled until 1867 when he and his mother moved to Nashville.
Two of Rufus’ brothers died during the war. The brothers are possibly George W. Esters and Robert Esters engraved under the U. S. Colored Troops (USCT) section of the Maury County War Memorial. Rufus wrote, “Two of my brothers were lost in the war, a fact that wrecked my mother’s health somewhat and I thought I could be of better service to her and prolong her life by getting work.”
His first jobs included milking cows and delivering meals to workers in the fields. He did these things until the age of sixteen when he found work in a Nashville restaurant and found his calling. He wrote, “I was employed in Nashville by a restaurant keeper named Hemphill. I worked there until I was twenty-one years of age.” The “Hemphill” Rufus worked for was Alexander Hemphill, the owner of a well-known restaurant on Church Street. According to newspapers accounts, Hempshill’s restaurant was sold in 1880 and a “new regime” began management in 1881. This may account for Rufus’ next move.
From Nashville, Rufus traveled to Chicago in 1881 and found employment at 77 Clark Street. He earned a salary of $10 per week at this position. Two years later, he would begin his career with the Pullman Car Company. It was during his fourteen years with Pullman that Rufus really made a name for himself as an outstanding chef. He wrote, “During the time I was in their [Pullman’s] service some of the most prominent people in the world traveled in the car assigned to me, as I was selected to handle all special parties.” These prominent people included Presidents Cleveland and Harrison and the famed singer Adelina Patti. (She also has a Maury County connection, but that’s for another time.)
Rufus’ friends persuaded him to compile all of his recipes and cooking methods. He published this compilation in 1911 under the title Good Things to Eat. Ten original copies are known to exist. Reprints are now available, titled Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat: The First Cookbook by an African-American Chef. For those interested, Duck River Books in historic downtown Columbia, Tennessee has copies available.
By the 1930s, Rufus was living in Los Angeles, California. The 1930 US Census lists him as a widower with the occupation of cook in LA’s café industry. When he died in 1939, his passing went largely unnoticed, despite his significant contributions to culinary arts and Black History.
Luckily, modern cooks have rediscovered his work. A quick online search of “Rufus Estes” will produce many results from chefs and bloggers alike that have attempted dishes from his book of Good Things to Eat.
Born into slavery to become the first African American chef to author a cookbook, Rufus Estes’ story is another amazing story to add to the annals of Maury County’s history.