A short time ago I mentioned doing several vintage style meals using vintage cookbooks. The scheme was that each Sunday this month, I would (barring any problems) prepare a different meal using a book in my collection. So, for this first entry, I started with a book that’s been of interest to me for a very long time.
In preparing Good Things to Eat, Rufus Estes became “the first American chef of African ancestry to write – let alone publish – a cookbook.” Little is known about Estes beyond the brief biography he provides in the book: Born a slave in 1857, Estes entered the service of the Pullman Company in 1883. He advanced in his craft, ultimately preparing meals for Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, a host of European and American dignitaries, and became the private chef to a number of prominent American financial barons. In 1911, Estes made the jump from chef to author, and for the most part, that’s where his story ends. For this exercise, I used a facsimile reprint published by Howling at the Moon Press, Jenks, Oklahoma (1999), ISBN: 9780965433310.
I decided to go with a pretty simple spread.
On page 24, Estes has a recipe for Ham Croquettes. I’ve prepared (and enjoy) Salmon croquettes, and have heard of the chicken variant, but never one involving ham. The instructions were so simple that I figured they’d be easy to make. To this, I decided to add Buttermilk Muffins (page 81), Boiled Corn (page 61- which is exactly what it sounds like), and Fried Onions (page 63 – which are essentially fried onion rings) . As for beverages, I opted to go with ginger ale and coffee. Everything would, as best possible, be prepared according to Estes’ instructions and served as he might have done so.
Ham Croquettes – This recipe is straight forward: “Chop very fine one-fourth of a pound of ham; mix with it an equal quantity of boiled and mashed potatoes, two hard-boiled eggs chopped, one tablespoonful chopped parsley. Season to taste. Then stir in the yolk of an egg. Flour the hands and shape the mixture into small balls. Fry in deep fat.”
Buttermilk Muffins – The recipe is a big one: “Sift four cups of flour, one-quarter cup cornmeal, and one level teaspoon each of salt and soda three times. Beat two eggs well, add a level tablespoon of sugar, four cups of buttermilk, the dry ingredients, and beat hard for two minutes. Bake in muffin rings or hot greased gem pans.”
Estes notes that “One-half the recipe will be enough for a small family.” Taking this as my cue, I prepared a half-recipe, mainly because there were too many uncertainties with this one – it resulted in 12 muffins. But I wanted a correct period-style bread and one that’d be easy to make.
Boiled Corn – Estes’ description of boiled corn is comparable to how we cooked it when I was a child. Take whole ears of corn, strip them of the husks and silk, remove any defective kernels, and boil. Whole corn prices around here were far more than I’d expected, and frankly, I was not interested in dealing with corn silk. So I compromised a bit and purchased a bag of frozen corn-on-the-cob, and prepared it per Estes’ instructions.
Fried Onions –I hadn’t intended on preparing any of Estes’ various onion recipes, but I wanted another vegetable and thought, “What was popular in 1911?” It turns out that onions were very popular at the time. I’d originally decided to make his Fried Spanish Onions dish, but I couldn’t find any Spanish onions on short notice, so I purchased some yellow onions and opted for a different recipe. In short, slice the onions into “rounds,” place them first in milk and then flour, before frying in fat for 8 minutes. Estes then suggests garnishing the dish with fried parsley.
This was the basic meal plan. There was also to be a simple salad, and some sort of after-dinner treat – probably gelatin.
So how did it turn out?
Well, it was fine, although not what I’d envisioned. The Little Woman, however, loved it.
My first mistake was a big one, and probably due to either ignorance or arrogance. I didn’t map out the amount of time I needed to prepare everything. I’d forgotten to prepare some parts of the recipes in advance (notably, boiling the eggs), and neglected to make other ingredients available. In short, I thought that I could just whip things together in a heartbeat, when in fact it involved a lot more than that. Won’t make that mistake again, that’s for certain.
The croquettes could have probably used another egg, or possibly even some milk. They needed something to hold them together as the mashed potatoes weren’t enough. I evidently didn’t have the oil hot enough, as they took far longer to cook than I’d expected. Once done, they weren’t bad, but again, that all could have been done better.
The muffins were a different story. The problem vintage cookbooks have for the modern (and admittedly, less-experienced) cooks is that they contain the bare minimum of information. Ingredients are mixed, poured into a pan, and then popped into an oven – but the temperature and cooking time are both mysteries. I opted to rely on a setting that seemed right: 400F for 20 minutes. It worked, and the muffins came out just fine. If I had to describe them, their texture reminded me of an English muffin.
The corn and onions were just as I’d expected. Seriously – how can you screw up that?
Here’s the display:
This was to mimic a 1911-ish dinner setting. I think this captures the essence of what Rufus Estes would have done with this very menu. The Mikasa bone china used here is a single serving set that I picked up from Bed, Bath and Beyond about three years ago. It just has the feel of early 20th century dining ware. The silverware is from Oneida, and is almost twenty years old. The salad and coffee are not visible, but you have the general idea.
In retrospect, it needed a sauce or gravy, and probably something more dramatic than boiled corn or fried onions. Definitely something green, and as my junior-high home econ teacher would have said, “Something colorful, too!”
The plan now is to prepare for the next vintage meal. This time, I’m looking at the period between 1935 and 1945. Believe it or not, this is pretty easy as there are a number of wartime ration guides with meal plans and whatnot. But we shall see. I hope to be better prepared than I was today!