Tastemaker of the Century—Helen Corbitt

She delivered us from canned fruit cocktail—and gave us confidence that the civilizing pleasures of the table were within our reach.

December 1999By Comments

Associate Provost Office, University of Texas Dallas

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. She was a cosmopolitan woman with a thorough knowledge of the best restaurants and food suppliers in the country. She was the first woman to win the Golden Plate Award, the highest honor in the food industry. She also garnered top honors from the gourmet society Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rotisseurs and served on the board of governors of the Culinary Institute of America. But most important, she understood Texans and delighted in getting them to eat foods that they professed to abhor, like lamb, anchovies, and yogurt. The assurance of good taste that Neiman Marcus’ customers sought in the store’s chic ready-to-wear could now be extended to their dining tables as well. “When Miss Corbitt put white grapes, heavy cream, and slivered toasted almonds in her chicken salad, it gave the rest of us confidence to experiment a bit,” says one of her ardent followers.

The experiments didn’t always work. Mary Bloom, who worked at Neiman’s as a young woman, remembers asking Miss Corbitt to take a look at a dinner party menu she was planning for friends. “I’m trying to be creative the way you are,” Mary said. “See, I’m going to peel the cantaloupe and stuff it with Roquefort cheese.” Miss Corbitt paused and then, unleashing her famous Irish wit, said, “Mary, am I the first to tell you that you’re pregnant?” She was.

The fabulous Neiman Marcus Foreign Fortnights, which the flagship store has recently resurrected, were launched in 1957. These were extravaganzas that took years to plan. Fortnights from France, Italy, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland brought to town not only the merchandise of those countries but their culture as well, in the form of concerts, art exhibits, film screenings, theater performances, and of course, food and wine. Corbitt was sent abroad to study the cuisine firsthand, and her adventures in foreign kitchens made great copy for her newspaper column, “Kitchen Klatter,” which appeared in the Houston Post and the Arkansas Gazette. Sometimes European chefs were imported to her Zodiac kitchen. In her 1974 cookbook, Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company, she remembers a French chef and his assistants: “They asked for and received everything they wanted except the skin from a sheep’s belly (I didn’t know any sheep) and women (I…didn’t know the right kind).” After they plied her kitchen staff with wine and brandy one day, she reclaimed her throne and declared that for future fortnights, she would research the recipes herself and do what she always did best, adapt the food to Texans’ taste. She knew that we really wouldn’t miss having our spinach puréed through a sheep’s belly.

Stanley Marcus, in a foreword to a posthumous collection of Corbitt’s recipes, wrote of her fourteen-year tenure at the helm of the Zodiac Room: “She was difficult, for she knew the difference between better and best, and she was never willing to settle for second best.” He dubbed her his Wild Irish Genius and the Balenciaga of Food and kept her happy all those years by offering her daily compliments. “Too many chefs today regard themselves first as artists,” Marcus says. “Corbitt created a beautiful plate, but she gave greater attention to how the food would taste.” As a matter of fact, her meatloaf baked in an angel-food-cake tin really does taste better.

Corbitt had what these days we might call healthy self-esteem. She told Julia Sweeney about the time a produce clerk caught her picking out the freshest mushrooms in the back room at the Simon David specialty food store and said, “I’m sorry, but the manager doesn’t allow people back here.” She blithely responded, “Go tell the manager Helen Corbitt is here. I have pickin’ privileges.” Even Stanley Marcus recalls with amazement how quickly Helen could reduce a directive from the boss to a suggestion. In Cooks for Company she admitted that she sometimes forgot that she didn’t own the Zodiac Room. Once, when the two sittings for a Fortnight dinner filled quickly, she decreed a third sitting, forgetting that it would entail keeping the entire store—with its lights, air conditioning, elevator operators, and security guards—open additional hours. She really caught it the next day, she wrote, but from then on there were three sittings. Corbitt’s perfectionism exacted a price: Even though it was packed with people daily, the Zodiac Room never showed a profit. In his memoir Minding the Store Marcus wrote that, when he complained of heavy losses, she replied, “You didn’t mention money when you employed me. You simply said that you wanted the best food in the country. I’ve given you that.”

Soups in the Zodiac Room were always made from scratch, with one exception: the cream of tomato. In a 1972 interview with journalist Francis Raffetto, Corbitt admitted, “I used Campbell’s, with coffee cream and butter to make it like velvet.” New York playwright Moss Hart, having lunch one day in the late fifties with Marcus’ brother Edward, ordered a second bowl and then asked for the recipe. To Marcus’ chagrin, Corbitt refused. She later explained, “We couldn’t tell Moss Hart he ate Campbell’s soup at Neiman Marcus.”

Helen Corbitt cooked for the smartly dressed country club set and for movie stars and socialites slimming at the Greenhouse Spa in Arlington, which she helped to create. She entertained royalty and the dignitaries of many foreign countries, but she also cooked for the secretaries and shopgirls and housewives who sometimes treated themselves to a pastry or a sandwich at the standup counter on the main floor. “Each bite of those little sandwiches was like a gift,” one woman recalls. “They were generously spread, and there was always something surprising in a Helen Corbitt sandwich—a little pineapple in the tuna, a bit of chutney with the turkey—that made your tastebuds come to attention.”

Even before she retired from Neiman  Marcus in 1969, the indefatigable Corbitt was expanding her legacy, lecturing all over the country and writing cookbooks—her first, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook (1957), had more than 27 printings and sold more than 300,000 copies. Her cookbooks, now out of print, are a staple of every Texas cook’s library. Worn-out copies, dog-eared and grease-splattered, are often rebound. Women who have cooked from her books all their lives light up with gratitude when her name is mentioned. “She taught me that I could entertain in a small apartment or in my kitchen without hired help,” says a friend who used to have a catering business (“Just throw a clean white cup towel over the dirty dishes in the sink!” Corbitt suggested in one of her lectures).

Corbitt-trained cooks have their favorite recipes: the poppy-seed dressing for fruit salad; the pancake stack, ten to twelve very thin fourteen-inch pancakes, spread either with lemon-cream butter and hot blueberry sauce or with butter, maple syrup, and a little ham gravy, stacked, and sliced for serving like a pie; or perhaps the queen of desserts, caramel soufflé with English custard sauce. Of the latter, wrote Corbitt in Cooks for Company, “You may halve the recipe, but why? Regardless of how few guests you have, it will all be eaten.”

The generous party spirit, awash in butter, cream cheese, eggs, and mayonnaise, that pervades her first two cookbooks (the second, Helen Corbitt’s Potluck, was published in 1962) inevitably gave way to the low-cholesterol, low-cal recipe collections, Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks (1967) and Helen Corbitt’s Greenhouse Cookbook (1979). Corbitt, like the rest of us, was fighting her own weight and cholesterol, and she refused to be limited to grapefruit and cottage cheese. Gone are the jaunty comments “Men will really love this” or “When you’re feeling extravagant…,” but a number of good cooks swear by her simple roast chicken stuffed with grapes.

With missionary zeal, Corbitt shared her expertise. She taught cooking classes to benefit the Dallas Symphony, raising more than $150,000. She also taught a more intimate class of close friends and their daughters in the store, charging only for the food used in the demonstrations. The notes from those sessions are now being passed like heirlooms to a third generation. And she taught a rather exclusive cooking class for fourteen men—some doctors and businessmen, an oil man, a lawyer, a stockbroker, and a liquor-chain vice president—on Wednesday nights in her duplex on University. Corbitt, who never married, clearly enjoyed her male following, and her cookbooks are most often dedicated to them. She liked that men asked questions and wanted to know the “why” of certain procedures. “She also liked that she could give us hell without worrying that she’d hurt our feelings,” recalls one of her male pupils, who still cooks her osso buco. She believed men were more adventurous in their food tastes and were held back by wives who just didn’t want to learn to cook new things. Had she lived to see it, she would be especially saddened by women today who take the same pride in not cooking that women of a previous generation took in their inability to type or take shorthand. She was a hardworking professional who understood that to make a savory beef stew, a busy working woman might have to brown the meat one day and simmer it the next, but she believed there was pleasure to be found in cooking for people you loved. “The dining room is one of the last outposts of civilization,” she wrote in Cooks for Company. “Let’s keep it that way.”

Helen Corbitt died of cancer in 1978. In the last year of her life, her good friend Father Don Fischer (now monsignor), then a young chaplain at the University of Dallas, took her the Eucharist daily. “It was a great gift to be able to bring spiritual food to such a lover of food,” he says. “Even in her weakening condition, she always felt she should offer me something when I came to see her. I tried to beg off but finally said, ‘Okay, but make it just something very simple.’ She made me the best peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich I’ve ever had. I know the bread was probably homemade. She spread it with butter, then a generous amount of peanut butter and marvelous preserves. I went away thinking that if that was what peanut butter and jelly was supposed to taste like, I had been a very deprived child.”

In Texas, B.C., most of us were.

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