Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Spending the day with a cook

Helen Corbitt
Another dull day but with no rain. Getting tired of this. But today I spent much of the day with Helen Corbitt, which was a delight. You probably have to be a Texan and of a certain age to remember Helen. From 1955 until the late sixties, she was in charge of food service at Neiman Marcus. Mr. Stanley once called her the Balenciaga of food. Coming from the east, with some Texas detours, she taught us Texans many things, like how to cook vegetables al dente and how to avoid canned fruit cocktail.
Corbitt, a graduate of Skidmore College, had an established career in food service before she affiliated with Neiman Marcus.  She came to Texas, reluctantly (“Who the hell wants to go to Texas?”) in the early 1940s to accept a position with the University of Texas. She had been a hospital dietitian in Newark and New York, but she was bored. As the U.S. came out of the Depression, the Texas offer was the only one she got. She came to Austin to teach quantity cooking and restaurant management. In connection wit the latter, she ran the University Tea Room, a laboratory for her students.
Restless, she moved on to the Houston Country Club for a stay of several years that ended only when the club hit hard times. Then she moved, briefly, to Joske’s department store, the only job from which she was fired because her food service didn’t show a profit. Helen Corbitt was concerned with quality not cost, and no kitchen she ran ever showed a profit. After a short spell as an independent caterer and food consultant, she was called to manage food service at the Driskell Hotel in Austin.
Stanley Marcus, knowing her reputation, courted her for eight years before she agreed to move to Dallas and take over the Neiman Marcus food service. But it was there that she established her reputation. She served high quality food to stars and celebrities, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Princess Margaret, and the Duke of Windsor but also to the middle-class housewife who was Stanley Marcus’ most important customer.
Known for her temper, Corbitt did not allow Marcus into her kitchen without an invitation. She once made opera diva Maria Callas and a party of thirty go to the end of the line because they were late for their reservation. And another time, she fired the entire kitchen crew, only to realize she needed them to serve a meal. She called security and had them blocked from leaving the store.
We have Corbitt to thank for several dishes—Texas caviar, which she invented when challenged to come up with a gourmet menu using native Texas foods; chicken bouillon which is still served daily in Nieman’s restaurants; the Duke of Windsor sandwich, a concoction of pineapple, cheddar, turkey or chicken, and chutney.
Corbitt retired from Neiman’s to write cookbooks and travel the world, collecting recipes and teaching and lecturing. She was the author of several cookbooks—from Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook to Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks, written after her doctor advised her to lose weight. She was a much sought-after speaker, sprinkling her talks about food with humor and practical advice. And she continued to teach. One of her most unusual classes was one she taught in her own apartment for a select group of Dallas businessmen. Corbitt proved that Texas men wanted more than steak and a baked potato.
Helen Corbitt died in 1978 of cancer. She had never married.
Maybe because I’m fascinated by “foodie” stuff these days, but I am really interested in this woman’s career and contributions to our Texas cuisine. I was working today on a entry for her in the online Handbook of Texas.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

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