Long before the rise of cooking channels and celebrity chefs, culinary pioneer Helen Corbitt placed Texas cuisine in the cultural landscape, according to our vintage cuisine expert Lori Duran.
Austinite Penny Sutton recalls her days as a student at the University of Texas during the 1970s when she decided, along with her sister, to host a dinner party for some girlfriends. They had a bottle of wine and they borrowed a Helen Corbitt cookbook from their mother. They tried Chicken Tetrazzini and a salad. It was a hit.
Later, while dating her future husband, Sutton prepared Corbitt’s curry recipe for him, since he had enjoyed eating curry on his navy ship. “When he came home on his birthday weekend I made one whole batch and then threw it out and made it again so it would not be my very first try that I served him,” Sutton remembers. She has been cooking from an original Corbitt cookbook ever since. “I first became aware of Ms. Corbitt from my mother,” Sutton says. “She helped make Austin a little more sophisticated then.” With timely updates and healthy modernizations, Corbitt’s cookbook endures as a go-to resource for cooks everywhere.
Back in the days before ubiquitous celebrity chefs, young Americans learned how to cook from home economics class, from mothers, from cookbooks and from few TV personalities. Then there was Corbitt, whose influence came to be felt all across Texas.
NEW YORK TO TEXAS
Corbitt was born, educated and started her career in New York, but she made her mark during her 38 years in Texas. She earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1928 at Skidmore College. She promptly went to work as a hospital dietician. There, she insisted that patients would improve with fresh, high-quality food that was properly seasoned and attractively served. She disdained canned vegetables and fruits and fried foods. But Helen wasn’t destined to spend the rest of her life working at a hospital. She needed an outlet that allowed her more creativity, so she actively pursued a new job. That job was in Austin.
In 1940, she was offered a place as restaurant manager and catering teacher at the University of Texas. In the Tea Room in the home economics building, she added garlic, onion, vinegar and oil to black-eyed peas for a dish we now know as Texas Caviar. She was also known for vegetables steamed only briefly so they remained slightly crisp and retained a bright color. Soon word spread about the tasty meals being served and the home economics café became such a popular spot that it grew into a larger space.
In 1942, Corbitt left UT for a position with the Houston Country Club where her dining room became a bigger draw than the always busy bar. The elite of Houston appreciated her lobster thermidor, crown roast of lamb and English peas in aspic. She stayed there for six years before accepting a position with the Houston outlet of San Antonio-based Joske’s department store, where she stayed just four years before returning to Austin.
In 1952, Corbitt was recruited to manage the kitchen at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. If you have ever eaten at the 1886 Café & Bakery at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, you probably have noticed they still serve Helen Corbitt’s Cheese Soup. The menu also includes a little bit of information about Corbitt, describing her as one of the pioneers of classic Texas cuisine. While managing the Driskill’s culinary arts, she got to know many of the local movers and shakers that dined at the Driskill. She served asparagus, which was somewhat uncommon at that time in Texas. And she shared a signature flowerpot dessert that later was widely-adopted and used at Texas bridal showers. In fact, she got to know future President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who loved her beef stroganoff. Later the Johnsons tried to persuade her to manage the White House kitchen, but she declined.
Instead, in 1955 she accepted a position as head of culinary operations at Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Stanley Marcus had courted her for eight years before he finally lured to manage the Zodiac Room at their flagship downtown store. Neiman Marcus was in its heyday of glamour and the Zodiac room was its upper-floor restaurant that served imaginative and delicious high-end cuisine – alongside models walking through the store in the day’s latest chic styles – that projected the Neiman Marcus image.
After Corbitt took over, patrons waited in long lines and celebrities who came to Dallas sought out her cuisine. It’s said that Stanley Marcus complained about the Zodiac Room not turning a profit, but Corbitt stood by her dedication to serve the finest food instead of serving the bottom line. She had become a cosmopolitan, award-winning and savvy restaurant businesswoman who knew the best food suppliers in the country when, in 1969, she retired from Neiman Marcus to write, teach and consult.
By the end of her life, she had published four cookbooks. A fifth cookbook was published posthumously. Her unique recipes such as poppy seed dressing (she stated once, “Where it originated I have no idea. I did popularize it when I realized that on the best grapefruit in the whole wide world, Texas grapefruit, it was the most delectable dressing imaginable,”) cheese soup, lemon crumb bars and others are still as popular as ever. After a long and celebrated career, she passed away in Dallas in 1978. Although later generations tended to recoil from some of her midcentury dishes—which introduced foreign influences without any rigorous attempt at authenticity—Helen Corbitt’s long audacious career created a legacy that changed the way Texans cook, entertain and feed their families.
Since Helen Corbitt’s heyday, cooking in a lower-fat and lower-cholesterol style has become a wise practice for some and a necessity for others. Over the years, Penny Sutton, a Corbitt devotee, has adapted two of her favorite recipes to be as nutritious as they are delicious.
CHICKEN SALAD SUPREME
Makes about 6 cups
1 lb. cooked chicken breasts diced into ½” cubes
1 cup fat-free mayonnaise
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 cup halved purple grapes
½ cup sliced and toasted almonds
1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ cup fat-free whipped cream
Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Combine chicken, mayonnaise, celery, grapes, almonds parsley and salt in a bowl. Add whipped cream and pepper, fold to combine. Can be served in lettuce cups.
SOUR CREAM MUFFINS
Makes two dozen
¼ pound butter
1 ½ cups sugar
½ tsp salt
Mix until light then add:
4 eggs, well beaten
1 ½ cups fat free sour cream
1 tsp soda
2 ¾ cups flour
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
Mix thoroughly. Pour into buttered muffin tins and sprinkle the tops with sugar. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes.