Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Good Things to Eat - As Suggested by Rufus (Rufus Estes -former slave)" & "Clambakes & Fish Fries" - Corn Fritters and Oyster Pan Roast

Date I made these recipes:  August 19, 2012

Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus by Rufus Estes – Published by Rufus in 1911; edited by D. J. Frienz
Facsimile of this book Published by Howling at the Moon Press
ISBN: 9-9654333-1-5
Recipe:  Corn Fritters – p. 61-62

Clambakes & Fish Fries by Susan Herrmann Loomis
Published by:  Workman Publishing, New York
© 1994
Recipe:  Oyster Pan Roast – p. 133-134

People, I am not a procrastinator by nature but I have been putting off posting this blog forever, probably, in part, because the meal wasn’t my best effort.  Although I rarely have clunkers, this definitely landed in that category and that makes me sad.  Food should be pleasing, no?

Initially, I planned to celebrate the end of the Olympics by preparing this meal.  But if you are like me, I was too exhausted to cook anything to celebrate the end of the world’s greatest sporting event.  And besides, the closing ceremony started early in the evening and who wanted to be in the kitchen (never mind that I have a TV there) during the closing ceremonies? (That said, NBC – please don’t announce the The Kinks and The Who are “coming up” if you don’t plan to show them.  Did we really need to see the pilot to Animal Planet/Animal Practice/Animal Whatever?)

Now, I am not normally glued to my set 24-7 during the Olympics, but this time was different.  Certain events have always grabbed my attention like swimming and track and yet there I was all fist to my mouth watching the equestrian Individual Jumping competition with the horses (and riders, natch) clearing (or not) all those bars and water hazards and whatnot.  And although I can often take or leave gymnastics (I know – heresy) I often find myself watching through my fingers as the gals do the balance beam.  I’m sorry, there’s just nothing on this planet that will make me do back flips on a 4” piece of wood - nothing.

At any rate and any who, one of the bright stars of the Olympics was of course Gabriel (Gabby) Douglas, the first African-American to win gold in the All-Around (Gymnastics) Competition.  I wish I had that gal’s enthusiasm and bubbly personality.  She was just a joy to watch, and I think we can all agree, not half bad in her events, right?!

So as I was watching her tumble and flip and twirl her way to a gold medal (and let’s not forget the team gold, either), I started pondering what cookbooks I could use to celebrate her breakthrough stardom.  And then it hit me – years ago, I acquired a cookbook written by a man who was born a slave but went on to have a career as a Pullman (train) chef and thought that would be perfect – a breakthrough star doing an unheard of “professional” job  in the early 1900’s.

Rufus Estes was born a slave in Tennessee in 1857 and was given his name by his slave master, D.J. Ester.  D.J. owned Rufus’ mother’s family:  does that not give you chills?  After the Civil War ended, he did odd jobs around his grandmother’s house before finally getting a job in a Nashville restaurant at age 16.  In 1883, he started working for Pullman and remained there until 1897; during that time he waited on everyone from African explorers to two Presidents of the United States - Grover Cleveland and William Henry Harrison.  Eventually, he became a chef for one of U.S. Steel’s subsidiary companies in Chicago and shortly thereafter wrote this cookbook.  He also penned the biography found in the front of the book. In 1999, a facsimile of his original book was published and the cookbook literary world took note – a cookbook penned by a former slave?  In 1911?  What?!

Not only did he write this cookbook but in terms of recipes it’s pretty comprehensive.  There’s a recipe in this book for homemade English Muffins and yet another for candied violets.  Well color me impressed because I am!

I decided to make his recipe for corn fritters as it was fairly easy and it is sweet corn time right now so I had a hankering.  But corn fritters alone didn’t seem like much of a meal and so I decided to make a seafood dish in homage to Gabby Douglas’ home town of Virginia Beach, Virginia thus the pan-roast oysters.  I’ve been to Virginia Beach many times in the past and had some delicious oysters there and so thought “Why not?”  Now hard could that be, anyway?  Answer:  harder than you think!

Clambakes & Fish Fries, my source for the pan-roast oysters, includes fish and seafood recipes from all over and since both Rufus and Gabby traveled all over in pursuit of their dreams, I thought a recipe from this book would be good.  Plus, truth be told, I’m not sure I have a Virginia seafood cookbook – yet.

Okay, so corn fritters and pan-roast oysters it was and so a week after the Olympics (now that I had time), I set about to get ‘er done.  Well.  I don’t know what I was expecting with the fitters but they came out like pancakes and let me tell you, flipping a pancake loaded with corn kernels is challenging.  The recipe said to let them cook for 4-5 minutes on each side but had I done that, we would be having charred corn—and this is not necessarily a good thing.

But the worst disaster was the oyster pan-roast.  This recipe said to fry for 1-2 minutes on each side and this was just wrong on so many levels.  I went longer than that but still ended up with kind of a mushy, warm oyster that was neither raw nor roasted.  But if I went too long, I worried that I would end up with erasers (trust me, this happens) and didn’t fancy eating erasers for dinner. 

So, what we ended up with was a corn pancake that needed way more salt and pepper than the recipe required and some mushy, warm oysters without much flavor to recommend them.  Can I just tell you that this is why keeping microwave popcorn on hand is a good idea?

Despite the culinary “failure,” I would attempt both dishes again but this time with variations:  maybe a pinch of cayenne pepper added to the fritters? How about maple syrup on top since they resemble pancakes? Or maybe a bit of white wine or vermouth added to the oysters?  The sky is the limit.

I do not regret though, having made recipes from these books, especially Rufus’ because it gave me a chance to re-read his crowning achievement and put it in perspective next to his modern-day “breakthrough” equivalent – Gabby Douglas’ gold medal.  While I am happy and proud of Gabby’s accomplishments, doesn’t it seem a little unreal that it took until 2012 for this to happen?  And yet- world events from the Civil War to the Olympics reminds us every time that life is a constant cycle of triumph over tragedy.  For Rufus, it was breaking out of his slave beginnings to carve out a life as a chef and to publish a cookbook.  For Gabby, it was leaving home and family behind in Virginia to train in West Des Moines, Iowa and then prevail over all the other gymnastic Olympic hopefuls to win a spot on a team.  I tell you what, just to make the Olympic team is an accomplishment in and of itself and something this aspiring couch potato does not take lightly!!

As a final thought, I was thinking that in some ways the failure of these recipes mirrors the efforts that fell short by most 2012 Olympic athletes including Gabby in some of her individual events. As my father always said “Many are called, few are chosen,” and so despite making the Olympic team, most athletes walked away without a medal. Watching the “agony of defeat” (thank you ABC’s Wild World of Sports!) is heartbreaking and yet it’s something that most of us experience – painfully – in our own lives every day. The moral of that life story is classic: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  I can assure you that I will live to cook another day!

So here’s to our breakthrough stars and their breakthrough moments. 

Corn Fritters – serving size not listed (I made half a recipe)
4 ears corn
¼ pound (sifted) flour
Two eggs
½ pint cold milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter for the pan

Prepare four ears of fresh corn by removing the outer husks and silks; boil and then drain well.  Cut the grains from the cobs and place in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, add one-fourth pound of sifted flour, two eggs and a half pint of cold milk.  Stir vigorously, but do not beat, with a wooden spoon for five minutes, when it will be sufficiently firm; butter a frying-pan, place it on a fire, and with a ladle holding one gill put the mixture on the pan in twelve parts, being careful that they do not touch each other, and fry till [until] of a good golden brown color, cooking four or five minutes on each side.  Dress them on a folded napkin and serve.

Ann’s Note:  a “gill” is one-half cup.

Oyster Pan Roast – 8 appetizer servings (4 main-course servings) – I made half the recipe
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ pounds (about 48) freshly shucked oysters
*I bought my oysters at Coastal Seafood in St. Paul

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Stir in the garlic, and cook until the butter foams and the garlic begins to turn slightly translucent, 1 to 2 minutes.  Then add the oysters and cook, stirring constantly or shaking the pan, until they are plump and beginning to curl at the edges, 1 to 2 minutes.  (Ann’s Note:  1-2 minutes does not seem like sufficient time.  After 4 to 5 minutes, I still had quite the gloppy mess on my hands.)

Turn the oysters out into a warmed serving bowl or individual bowls, and serve with plenty of crusty bread. 

*PS--I purchased this book, Clambakes & Fish Fries at Arc's Value Village in Richfield, MN for mere pennies on the dollar.  


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