Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the ninth essay in this series, written by Krysia Villon.
In seeking out historical recipes to recreate for this class, it was easy to see that much of the material and cultural documents available from which to do my research had a very European or Euro-centric slant and not always much else. I decided, to seek out historical recipes that documented that “something else,” or someone else, to put it simply. While there are a few volumes of African American cookbooks, or books that contain recipes, pre-dating the book I ultimately chose, I landed upon Good Things to Eat: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. by Rufus Estes (1911) because I appreciated the author’s candor and voice in his introduction.
The author opens his book with a brief autobiography, illustrating for the reader his work ethic, professional history and, ultimate, by his expertise as a chef. Estes was a born a slave in Tennessee in 1857. Later, his family moved to Nashville where he was able to obtain some formal education. He mentions his wages and type of work very clearly yet without too much detail, leaving the reader with, in my opinion, loaded facts about the life of a former, and recently freed, slave. He started working in the restaurant industry and by the age of 26 found employment with the prestigious Pullman Car Company. Here he grew professionally and was educated as a chef. This position led to his employment with a private car company where he went on to serve American presidents, dignitaries and the like (1911, 7). While many of the recipes are European in their influence, Estes did manage to include some typical Southern recipes as well as other ethnic dishes, such as “Creole Sauce” (1911, 109) or “Baked Bananas, Porto Rican Fashion” (1911, 120).
This book was written as a standard recipe book and was published by the author himself in Chicago in 1911. As the foreword states, “This book, the child of [the author’s] brain, and experience, extending over a long period of time and varying environment, he frankly admits is not without its faults — is far from perfect; but he is satisfied that, notwithstanding its apparent shortcomings, it will serve in a humble way some useful purpose” (1911, 5). The forward, while written in the third person does appear to have been written by author, goes on to say that the recipes in the book have been “demonstrated, not experimentally, but by actual tests, day by day and month by month” (1911, 5), giving the reader comfort in knowing that a humble yet learned cook has provided accurate information and is educated in his field. This elevates the author and gives him the element of distinction with his breadth of knowledge and experience.
Armed with his history and trust in his expertise I looked through the close to 600 recipes in his book. As a coffee-lover and someone who also loves baked custards, I chose the recipe entitled “Coffee Cream” on page 91.
I also chose this recipe because I already had many of the ingredients in my pantry. The technology and techniques fell within my embodied knowledge of cooking and baking as well.
I began by gathering my ingredients. I bought some things I thought would be “close” to what cooks in 1911 would most likely have used, for instance, organic whole milk and eggs. I supplemented with items already in my kitchen.
Next, I gathered my tools.
Once I gathered all that I needed, I followed the instructions, as prescribed. I found that some details were left to the cook’s embodied knowledge, as is commonplace for historical recipes. The recipe assumed the reader would know what a “double boiler” is and would know how to use it to “thicken” the mixture. It also assumed understanding the nature of whipping egg yolks and whites, and how to achieve certain textures in them to bring the contents of the coffee cream together. Another thing that had not occurred to me until I was struggling a bit to release the finished product from the mold is knowing the various tricks on how to release the custard from a pan or cup. This knowledge would come with experience and a lot of trial and error, perhaps.
After letting the mixture cool and set for about 2 hours in my refrigerator, I de-molded the Coffee Cream and revealed something that looked a lot like flan! (One of my favorite desserts and one that I make often.)
When I tasted it, I was pleasantly surprised by both the texture and the flavor. The gelatin cap was smooth and flavorful, the custard beneath was fluffy, airy and sweet. I could imagine a car attendant serving this after a heavier meal on a dainty plate as seen above, the powdered sugar being dusted on top while the private car passenger looked on with anticipation. On the flip side, this is not a dessert I would associate with the everyday household dessert in the south, the region from which the author hailed, especially because it requires some refrigeration. This imbues the dish with meaning and significance, of ‘have’ and ‘have nots,’ of privilege and access. Knowing who the author of this book is only further imbues it with the message of gaining access even when the odds are against you.
Since I found this dessert so enjoyable and thought-provoking, I felt prompted to search the internet to see if the recipe was still in circulation today. Sadly, I could not find one website that mentioned this delicious dessert, though there are many “coffee creams” out there. Perhaps that works out well for me, then, as I can make something that appears unique to many and comes with a story, too. Yum! Buen provecho!
Estes, Rufus. 1911. Good Things to Eat: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. Chicago, Rufus Estes.