Wondering What’s Good to Eat? Rufus Estes Has Some Answers!

February is Black History Month. If you’re in Blacksburg and have a chance to drop by the library, one my collegues has put together an amazing display of materials in our reading room. The exhibit highlights African-American contributions from many our main collecting areas, as well as to university history. Some of my favorite past posts I’ve written include ones on John B. Goins’ The American WaiterS. Thomas Bivens’ The Southern Cookbook: A Manual of Cooking and List of Menus including Recipes used by Noted Colored Cooks and Prominent Caterers, and the Women’s History Month profile last March on Malinda Russell and A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen. This week, I found something else I’ve never looked at before: Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus; A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, etc., written by Rufus Estes and published in 1911.

In a recent instruction session, I was talking with students about the idea of authority and food history materials. There are some really interesting question when it comes to cookbooks: What does “authority” mean? What makes (or doesn’t make) a writer an authority on the recipes they create and write? Does authority (or a lack thereof) affect how a cookbook might have been accepted in its own time? Does authority (or a lack thereof) affect how we look at a historic cookbook today and whether or not we accept is a good source of information? When we’re investigating cookbooks and food history primary sources, does authority even matter? Answering all of these would probably lead to an exceptionally long blog post–and, of course, as we say in the archival world, “it depends.” We might considered different cookbooks in different ways, depending on different factors. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t comment a bit on the concept of authority in conjunction with Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus. Especially since Rufus Estes very much invites us to do so, by beginning his book with a biographical sketch.

Good Things to Eat, 1911. Author's biography.
Good Things to Eat, 1911. Author’s biography.

Rufus Estes very carefully sets up his authority as a chef in the first few pages of his cookbook. He wants us to know where he comes from, what he has done, and, by default, what may have influenced him. Of course, in theory, this whole biography could be fake and Estes could have just been an identity. The idea of a constructed person to market or sell a book or products isn’t new. But, in this case, there are records and evidence to prove Estes was a real person and held the positions he tells us about (and those he doesn’t). He gives us his background to show his readers that he does, in fact, know a thing or two about being a chef. When we’re talking cookbooks, does one need to be a chef to be an authority? Certainly not. And my saying I accept Estes’ biography as giving him authority as an cookbook writer doesn’t mean we would all agree on that.  It’s just interesting to consider.

It’s also worth pointing out that having a biography is not unique to Estes. Malinda Russell included some information her life, as did Abby Fisher in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (a book we’ll talk about a little later this month). Mary Randolph talks about her expertise in The Virginia Housewife. Other authors rely on introductions written by seemingly well-known people in their own time to lend weight to a writer’s authority, reliability, and even like-ability. And we still see this as a common practice in books today, culinary-related or otherwise.

You can read a little more about this book and view the entire item online through the Michigan State University’s “Feeding America” project–which, if you haven’t looked at before, you should take a moment to peruse! And next time you start preparing a recipe from your favorite cookbook (or a new one), you might take a minute to think about who the author is, why they wrote the book, and why their recipes appeal to you. Even when we’re not aware of it, a writer’s “authority” may be at work!

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