In the years b.c. (before Corbitt), Texans had no artichokes, no fresh raspberries, no herbs except decorative parsley, only beef (chicken-fried, barbecued, or well-done), potatoes (fried or mashed and topped with a glop of cream gravy), and wedges of iceberg with sweet orange dressing. Fruit salad meant canned pears or pineapple with a dollop of mayonnaise and a grating of cheddar cheese. Canned asparagus was a remarked-upon delicacy, as were LeSueur canned peas. The introduction of the TV dinner in the fifties would be a step up for some households.
Into this bleak culinary landscape came a young Irish Catholic Yankee named Helen Corbitt. In a career that spanned nearly forty years in Texas, she delivered us from canned fruit cocktail, plates of fried brown food, and too much bourbon and branch into a world of airy soufflés, poached fish, chanterelle mushrooms, fresh salsify, Major Grey’s Chutney, crisp steamed vegetables, and fine wine. She was a creative pioneer who came here reluctantly and learned to love us. She taught us, she fed us, she entertained us, and best of all, before she left us in 1978, she wrote down the how-to of Corbitt hospitality in five cookbooks, giving us confidence that the civilizing pleasures of the table were within our reach. Superstar chefs Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, and Robert Del Grande may pay homage to Julia Child and Simone Beck, but long before they learned to clarify butter, there was Corbitt.
Helen Corbitt was born on January 25, 1906, in upstate New York into a home where good food was highly valued and generously shared. After her graduation from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, with a degree in home economics, her plans for medical school were derailed by the Depression. She took a job as a therapeutic dietitian at Presbyterian Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, then went on to Cornell Medical Center in New York, where she persuaded doctors that sick people would respond more favorably to food if it was properly seasoned and attractively served.
In 1940 Corbitt was offered a job teaching catering and restaurant management at the University of Texas. “I said, ‘Who the hell wants to go to Texas?’” she later told Dallas Times Herald reporter Julia Sweeney. “Only I didn’t say ‘hell’ in those days. I learned to swear in Texas.” Two weeks after she arrived in Austin, she was asked to do a dinner for a hotel convention using only Texas products: “What I thought of Texas products wasn’t fit to print!” Like an alchemist, she transformed prosaic black-eyed peas for the dinner, adding some garlic, onion, vinegar, and oil and christening them “Texas Caviar.” Neiman Marcus would later sell thousands of cans of the stuff. The University Tea Room, a lab she created for her classes in the U.T.
Home Economics Building, became such a popular eating spot for faculty and students that it soon merited its own space near Twenty-fourth and San Jacinto. Corbitt left Austin for a more lucrative position at the Houston Country Club in 1942. She still wasn’t sold on Texas and planned to stay just long enough to get on her feet and buy a ticket back to New York. She claimed that she didn’t unpack her suitcase for the first six months. But after a year in Houston, she had decided to stay. “I was having such a good time producing great food for appreciative Texans,” she told her literary agent, Elizabeth Ann Johnson. She miraculously turned out fancy dinners despite World War II rationing. Unable to get Wesson oil, she reportedly bought No. 1 refined mineral oil from the Humble Oil Company and used it for cooking purposes. “The people at the Houston Country Club were awfully healthy while I was there,” she told Sweeney.
Joske’s department store in Houston hired her away from the country club to manage its restaurant and catering, but the job wasn’t a good fit. “Being fired from Joske’s [for not bringing in enough money and not seeing eye to eye with the executives] was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. She returned to Austin in the early fifties to reign over the Driskill Hotel’s dining room and catering, introducing politicians and other dignitaries to food creatively prepared and properly served. Clarence “Captain” White, whom she trained to oversee the Driskill dining room, remembers, “When we served fresh asparagus [a truly exotic vegetable in those days], she always had us cut it on the bias, so it would look like green beans. The men would sometimes say, ‘What kind of green beans are these? I like ’em!’” Recalls Lady Bird Johnson: “When Lyndon and Jesse Kellam had dinner parties at the Driskill, they always knew the evening would go well if Helen Corbitt was in charge.” According to Bess Abell, the White House social secretary in the Johnson years, Helen Corbitt recipes were frequently used at the White House. Her signature flowerpot dessert was a natural for Mrs. Johnson’s beautification luncheons. Years before anybody had heard of Martha Stewart, Corbitt layered tiny clay flowerpots with cake and ice cream, stuck a trimmed drinking straw in the middle, and topped off the pot with meringue. After the meringue was browned in the oven, she inserted a fresh flower in each straw. These desserts frequently pop up at Texas bridesmaids luncheons even today.
In 1955, after being courted for several years, Corbitt finally agreed to take over Neiman Marcus’ food service. It is difficult to say who benefited more from the relationship. Neiman’s flagship Dallas store was in its heyday. Texans had money and were spending it. Women still wore hats and gloves downtown, and the Zodiac Room, where men and women sipped Corbitt’s tiny cups of chicken consommé while sleek models sporting the latest fashions circled their tables, was an oasis of sophistication and glamour. Corbitt had the flair, the taste, and the energy to produce food that was as visually enchanting as the store’s windows on Main and Commerce.