Helen Corbitt is to American cuisine what Julia Child is to French. She insisted on the finest, freshest ingredients, served with impeccable style. As Director of Food Services for Neiman Marcus’s Zodiac Room, she dazzled celebrities and dignitaries who flocked there for tantalizing cuisine. In The Best from Helen Corbitt’s Kitchens, Patty MacDonald serves up more than 500 favorite recipes from Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook and her four later cookbooks, as well as many never before published recipes from her cooking schools.
“A must-have for any serious collector of Texas cookbooks.”—Austin Chronicle
“Helen Corbitt was of another generation, but many of her recipes live on in the Lone Star State, as do her fans.”—Austin American-Statesman
“It says a lot about Corbitt that more than two decades after her death, cooks still treasure her recipes. . . . In Texas, every kitchen belongs to Helen Corbitt.”—Houston Chronicle
About the Author
PATTY VINEYARD MACDONALD has revived recipes combined with biography in Long Lost Recipes of Aunt Susan and Spiced with Wit: Will Rogers’ Tomfoolery and More Aunt Susan Recipes. She lives in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
The Best from Helen Corbitt's Kitchens
By Patty Vineyard MacDonald
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2000 Patty Vineyard MacDonald
All rights reserved.
Helen Corbitt's Story
With little more than soufflés and sass, Helen Corbitt became a food legend. This brash transplanted Yankee firebrand waged her own revolution on the naive palates of hungry Texans. She once claimed to have brought elegance to the Lone Star State, an imagined slur that caused the Texas food writers to rise up in wrath. "I couldn't believe the food they were eating," she said about her early days in Texas. "Chicken fried steak, I couldn't eat one yet. Everything overcooked, salads over-dressed." Inevitably, her innovations came to define our culinary standards and this outlander, hatched in the northern woods, was eventually named one of the ten most influential women in Texas.
Stanley Marcus, scion of the famous Dallas mercantile family and a renowned taste-maker himself, declared Helen "the Balenciaga of Food," referring to the great post-war Spanish fashion designer known for classic lines and elegance. Earl Wilson described her simply as "the best cook in Texas." She was the 1968 recipient of the solid gold Escoffier plaque from the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the world's oldest gourmet society, founded in 1248. It is unclear how she managed to keep their requisite ancient vow "never to desecrate a roast by cooking it in any other way than on a turning spit." She was also an honorary member of the exclusive gourmet society Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, which resulted in her assessment "the Châine has more fun."
The professional honor Helen Corbitt most treasured was the Golden Plate Award given her by the Institutional Food Service Manufacturers' Association in 1961. She was the first woman thus honored by her peers. Skidmore College awarded a Doctor of Letters degree to its distinguished alumna and trustee. The University of Dallas presented her its coveted Athena Award, not for her cooking, but for her indomitable spirit and impeccable character. These two attributes served her well, for the road to international fame led from hospital dietetics to conquering Texas, to international travels, authorship and cooking schools and on to directing the restaurants of Neiman Marcus during its most glamorous days.
High Buttoned Shoes and Morals
Helen Lucy Corbitt was born in Benson Mines, New York, in 1906. During her childhood, her father was a prosperous attorney-businessman and her mother had her own dressmaking business, "but we always had good cooks, and mother baked her own bread." Her mother's artistic bent was reincarnated in Helen's unique food presentations, for which she relied on esthetic combinations and contrasts of color, texture and sometimes even serving temperatures. She remembered her proper Edwardian upbringing as a time when quality was a password in food, clothes, discipline and lifestyle.
Looking back, Helen recalled the first dishes she learned to cook were those universal childhood favorites: macaroni and cheese combined with enough egg and milk to bake into an almost-custard and, when she was seven years old, "June Cake," a kissin' cousin to a pound cake. She liked macaroni and cheese with creamed potatoes so much that she prepared that identical dinner every time the cook had a day off. She later reported that her father wouldn't have given even odds that she could make it in the food service business because he was sure that menu was the extent of her talent. "Food was important at our house," she said. "At home in upstate New York we cooked with coal. You know, I don't think pot roast ever tasted as good as when it was cooked in a coal stove." Helen always claimed that she never could best her mother when it came to making chocolate pie.
The Skidmore Coed
Helen earned a BS degree in Home Economics in 1928 from Skidmore College, located in the lovely Victorian spa and thoroughbred racing town of Saratoga Springs, New York. The school, now a prestigious independent liberal arts college with 2,100 men and women studying on its modern campus, was the inspiration of Lucy Skidmore Scribner, who started a school in 1903 to teach young women to sew and cook and to instruct them in the art of gracious living. In her acceptance speech for her Doctor of Letters Degree, Helen said that she had chosen Skidmore a half-century earlier because "it quietly let a few people know it had extremely high standards.... True we were housed in rickety old buildings, mine had a rope coiled under the bed in case of fire. I have no doubt it was used at other times." She credited the school with having shown her how important it is throughout life to learn to distinguish the excellent from the second-rate and to care about the difference.
She had wanted to become a doctor, but after college the Depression detoured her into the dietary kitchen. Her father had lost everything he owned, even the family home. Her first job was as therapeutic dietitian at Presbyterian Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, and a short time later she became administrative dietitian at Cornell Medical Center in New York City. In those days interns received only about ten dollars a month, but they and their families had the privilege of eating in the doctors' cafeteria once a week. The young doctors claimed that Helen's food did more to build that medical center than did the illustrious faculty.
"Deep in the Heart of ... Texas"?
Helen needed a more creative outlet than hospital dietetics and soon she was tramping the streets of New York seeking another job. Nobody but Helen could see beyond her hospital work. The only job offer she snared was to teach large quantity cooking and tea room management at the University of Texas in Austin. She didn't want to accept the job. "I said, 'Who the hell wants to go to Texas?' Only I didn't say hell in those days. I learned to swear in Texas," and "to tell a cockroach from a scorpion." She had a long way to go, but still, a job was a job in those lean years. She soon discovered that her Texas students had learned nothing more than how to make fancy sandwiches. "I had to teach those people how to cook!"
Adjusting to her new home was not easy for this strong-willed young Irish redhead. She hated Texas! After two weeks in Austin, she was asked to do a convention dinner using only Texas products. "What I thought of Texas products wasn't fit to print," she later confessed. Almost in defiance, she concocted for that dinner a mélange of garlic, onion, vinegar and oil mixed in with black-eyed peas. She called it "Texas Caviar," and Neiman Marcus later put it up in cans that Texans ordered by the case [see recipe on page 39].
She was entertaining thoughts of going back home to "God's country," when the Houston Country Club offered her a job that came with an apartment and a decent salary. She turned it down. They came back again and she agreed to try it for a year, but only because she was broke. "I thought I would stay just until I got on my feet and then go back to New York. The first six months I didn't unpack my suitcases. Then I unpacked the suitcases but not my trunk. After a year I unpacked the trunk and decided to stay." Helen finally had made her peace with Texas and through later years described herself as a "Texan by adoption."
This was just at the beginning of World War II and the country club was losing money. The board told her to do whatever she wanted. Soon Helen's dining room was a bigger draw than the nineteenth hole. "They told me I took the 'class' out of the club," she chuckled. "I also paid off their debt." She was there for more than six years.
The Al Dente War
Part of Helen's hands-on management style was to perch on a kitchen stool to inspect every plate before it was served. One of her innovations was to steam all vegetables briefly so that they remained slightly crisp and brightly colored. A former employee tells the story about one particular day when Corbitt spied limp broccoli about to be covered with turkey breast before being slathered with Mornay Sauce and dolloped with Hollandaise Sauce [see recipes on pages 226 and 224]. In high Irish dudgeon, she ordered all of the broccoli thrown out. The diners waited meekly while their entrées were re-created to Corbitt's exacting standards.
This was only the opening skirmish in the Al Dente War that Helen waged all her life. She insisted on the freshest fruits and vegetables, steamed in small batches. Her credo was the less time the pot boils, so to speak, the better the flavor, better for health. Why destroy the vitamins? They are sensitive. Less stirring, less handling gives food a chance to show its au naturel look.
As might be anticipated, green bean cookery became the principal battleground in all her kitchens. Once when a hapless waitress returned a plate to the kitchen because her customer had complained that the vegetables were raw, Corbitt thundered, "What do you mean the green beans weren't done? God put me on this earth to teach you Southerners how to cook green beans!"
Helen had moved on to operating the tearoom at Joske's department store in Houston and had started her own catering business, when the Driskill Hotel called her back to Austin. The good news spread quickly among well-connected Texas politicos. Paul Wakefield wrote to a friend in Lampasas, "I am pleased to report that Travis County tavern cooking has improved a great deal with the appearance here of the distinguished and gifted Miss Helen Corbitt, who is doing some lyrical things in the way of food ... at the old Driskill.... I was told by one of the economy-minded members that the old [Houston Country] club just couldn't afford her fine gifts." The truth was that Helen was far more concerned with taste than she was with the bottom line in all her food operations.
While she was at the Driskill, Helen made the acquaintance of many of the state's "movers and shakers," who lunched and dealt in the old paneled hotel dining room. Under her watchful eye, the staff became known for both service and discretion. Here a lifelong friendship with the Lyndon B. Johnsons was formed, which culminated in the President applying his legendary powers of persuasion to try to get Helen to manage his White House kitchen. Although she was their guest many times, she was adamantly opposed to working at the White House. In a 1969 letter written to her on White House stationery, LBJ complained, "... my waistline isn't getting me down, my diet is." After the president's retirement, Lady Bird Johnson wrote to Helen, "Lyndon once said, 'What we need is a Helen Corbitt to take care of the entertaining we do at the [LBJ] Library and at the ranch, and help keep our guests comfortable.' I am sure he was thinking of himself, too, and the surprises he would find at the dinner table."
Big City Lure
Stanley Marcus courted Helen Corbitt for eight years before she finally agreed to give up her job at the Driskill and come to Dallas. Each turndown would end with his saying, "Just let me know when you're ready to come to work for me, Helen." Late one night the phone rang and a woman's voice said, "I'm ready. When do you want me to start?" Helen asked to bring along her major-domo, Clarence White—called Captain White—who quickly became a mainstay of the Zodiac Room.
In the Texas of those days it was hard to escape the glamour and allure of Neiman Marcus—even for those like Helen, who were already well up the prestige ladder themselves. Marcus, a gourmet and perfectionist, had hoped to provide the best restaurant in the region to attract more people to the downtown area and keep them in the store longer. However, his first few restaurant directors had not been successful in establishing such a reputation. Helen was characteristically blunt when she finally accepted. "They say Jesus Christ couldn't please you," she told him. "I'd like to see whether I can." Years later she said, "A lot of people think Stanley Marcus made me. I'm very fond of Stanley, and my years at Neiman Marcus were the most rewarding of my life, but I had my reputation before I came to him."
The Zodiac Room was the upper-floor restaurant in the flagship Dallas store. Furred and sparkling ladies, usually accompanied by their illustrious men, found it an oasis for daytime glamour. Dallas citizens and out-of-town visitors could enjoy a noonday feast along with a display of the latest fashions worn by sleek, slim Neiman Marcus models. Raquel Welch won her break in the movies as a store model.
Food served in the Zodiac attracted as much attention as the models. It was imaginative, delicious and presented with flair. The Zodiac Room projected the Neiman Marcus image as much as the store's advertisements, sumptuous displays or even its famous Fortnights. Demand soon created a Thursday evening buffet, as well, since there were few good downtown restaurants convenient for customers during extended store hours. Before long, affluent Texans began driving miles into town to wait in long lines for a Corbitt meal.
Not only Texans, but every visiting celebrity that came through Dallas vied for a seat in the Zodiac Room—names like Bob Hope, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carol Burnett, Charlton Heston, Kaye Kayser, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Margaret, Lily Pons and Greer Garson. Van Cliburn lunched while his mother was having her hair done in the adjacent beauty salon. They were guests and they were welcome, but Helen's standards and sense of fairness prevailed. One morning operatic diva Maria Callas made a luncheon reservation for her party of thirty. Renowned for keeping everyone waiting, she was over a half-hour late, so Corbitt instructed the staff to break down the long table and serve people who had been waiting patiently in line. Callas's retinue swept in still later and were consigned to the end of that long line.
A Feisty Cook
In Minding the Store, Stanley Marcus writes, "I had been forewarned that I might have difficulty holding on to her, for she had a record of getting bored with her jobs. Very quickly, I discerned that beneath her facade of self-assurance and belligerence, she had a basic need for appreciation." He made a point of complimenting her several times a week on some particular menu offering. "Helen, that was the best Lamb Curry I've ever eaten," or "Our Canadian visitor said that your Steak and Kidney Pie was better than any he's had in London." A bit sheepishly, Marcus confessed that he even invented a few compliments. Corbitt invariably harrumphed, "I've been makin' it that way for a long time."
How she must have tried his patience! Accustomed to poking into every corner of his store, one morning Marcus strolled into Helen's institutional kitchen. "Stanley, did I invite you into my kitchen?" boomed Helen. "No? Then walk right out and don't come back until I do!" Times like that may have originated his other pet name for her, his "Wild Irish genius." In a speech at Skidmore in which she recalled the particular joys of her life, she mentioned "sixteen wonderful years trying to get the best of Stanley Marcus."
Part of Helen's success was her bed-rock knowledge of food—part was her feisty attitude. "I'm kind of an individualist and he [Marcus] let me go ahead and create my own climate without interference." Soon the Zodiac Room began to reflect Helen's ideas and especially her favorite color, blue. The hue was carried out in linens, dishes, menus and even in the oft-noted blue sugar on the tables. It was Marcus's genius that he gave her elbow room to create not only the most famous restaurant in the Southwest, but one of the premier dining establishments in this country.
Of course Helen and Stanley both knew who really owned the store. A story holds that when Helen had cooked in Houston, Mrs. Bernard Sakowitz, wife of the owner of Houston's most exclusive fashion store, indulged in the Baked Shrimp so often that the recipe came to be known as "Shrimp Saki" [see recipe on page 212]. Stanley Marcus told Helen to rename the dish for the Zodiac menu, explaining "I'm not going to advertise the competition!"
Potluck? Well Really!
The Zodiac menu was soon enlarged to nine hot and nine cold dishes every day. "Potluck," a trademark of her restaurant, was anything she wished to concoct that day. There were always four different Potluck entrées so that each person at a table could be served something different. With the waiters sworn to secrecy, guests were invariably delighted with their surprise entrées. The cream of these improvised recipes was gathered into her popular cookbook, Helen Corbitt's Potluck.
Operating under the dictum that the most expensive food is that which is not eaten, Helen never cut corners on quality. She insisted on the freshest produce, sometimes shopping for it herself. One morning a new employee of Dallas' gourmet grocery store spotted a well-dressed, determined woman selecting mushrooms from the crates in the back of the store. "I'm sorry, but the manager doesn't allow customers back here," he said. The woman continued to fill her bag. "Go tell the manager Helen Corbitt is here," she said. "I've got pickin' privileges."
Excerpted from The Best from Helen Corbitt's Kitchens by Patty Vineyard MacDonald. Copyright © 2000 Patty Vineyard MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Helen Corbitt's Story,
Soups and Stews,
Salads and Dressings,
Poultry and Stuffings,
Fish and Seafoods,
Cheese and Eggs,
Vegetables and Cooked Fruits,
Potatoes, Grains and Pasta,
Ice Creams, Ices and Frozen Desserts,
Cakes and Icings,
Pies and Pastries,
This and That,