A Dessert with a History

Jeri Quinzio, who explores the history of ice cream in Of Sugar and Snow, presents the story of chef Rufus Estes, and a favorite maple dessert from Estes’ 1911 cookbook, Good Things to Eat.
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quinzio1From Slave to Successful Chef

Born into slavery in 1857, Rufus Estes was hard at work in the fields by the time he was five. Yet, despite this inauspicious start in life, he became an acclaimed chef and an author. Estes was the youngest of nine children in a family that lived on a plantation in Tennessee. When the Civil War ended and he gained his freedom, he went to work in a Nashville restaurant where he found his calling as a cook. He was just sixteen. Ten years later, Estes was employed by the Pullman railway car service. To his delight he was given the plum assignment of handling special parties. Among the prominent individuals he cooked for were Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, famed singer Adelina Patti, pianist Ignace Paderewski, and Princess Eulalie of Spain. Later, he worked as a private chef and traveled the world.

He wrote Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus; A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. and published it himself in 1911. The book is indeed full of recipes for good things, from an asparagus soufflé to calves’ liver quenelles to lemon meringue pudding. Estes wrote that he would feel himself “amply compensated” if the people who enjoyed the dishes in his book thought of him with “kindly feelings.”

My favorite recipe from Good Things to Eat is this simple, elegant frozen parfait. I have no doubt that everyone who tastes it will think of Rufus Estes with extremely kindly feelings. I know I do.

Maple Parfait

1 cup maple syrup
4 large eggs
1 pint heavy cream

Warm the maple syrup in the top of a double boiler. Whisk eggs together in a bowl. Pour a little syrup into the eggs and stir together, then add the mixture to the warm maple syrup. Cook over low heat stirring constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. Don’t let it come to a boil.

Remove from the heat and let cool. Strain, in case any bits of egg have scrambled, then chill.

Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks, then gently fold it into the chilled maple mixture. Pour into a mold or a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and keep in the freezer until ready to serve.
– Adapted from Good Things to Eat by Rufus Estes (Chicago: Published by the Author, 1911).

3 thoughts on “A Dessert with a History

  1. Thank you for mentioning Chef Estes. I recently came across the interview with Peter Berg on his Feeding America project on Fast Recipes and the collection makes a cook book such as Estes’ all the more significant. The evolution of cookery in America is more than a culinary history, it is a reflection of the very essence of America.

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