We’ve all been asked at one time or another, “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” My answer would be one of the grand dames of cooking and food writing – Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, Isabella Beeton, and, of course, Helen Corbitt .
But I can see my dream dinner party turning into a nightmare if I was commissioned to do the cooking. What an intimidating group of esteemed and experienced first ladies of culinary.
Corbitt once confided to a friend that one of her biggest complaints was that she didn’t get invited out to dinner enough. She inferred that so many were intimidated by her presence and reluctant to cook for her. Her friend replied, “Well who wants to play chopsticks for Van Cliburn?”
What I wouldn’t given to interview, dine or cook with this grand lady who transformed how Texans eat and infused her brand of ‘elegant American’ cooking across the country.
Many people, even today, love her cookbooks, her recipes and memories of visiting The Zodiac Room at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. Everyone knows her chicken salad, ice cream and cake flowerpots and chicken consommé.
Her cooking and entertaining advice was revered, but, what do you know about the woman with the formidable personality and determination that made possible this culinary legacy.
Stanley Marcus, president of Neiman-Marcus, hired Corbitt to run food services for the downtown store in 1955. He’d spent the previous eight years trying to convince Corbitt to come to Dallas.
“Under her direction our restaurant gained international attention. This ‘Balenciaga of Food,’ as I once introduced her, had the ability to produce new taste sensations and to satisfy the eye as well as the palate by her dramatic food presentation. I called her affectionately ‘my wild Irish genius’ in recognition of her uncontrollability, her genuine Irish temperament and her sheer genius in the field of food. When I complained about the 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.’” Marcus said in his memoir, “Minding the Store.”
“She was difficult, for she knew the difference between better and best, and she was never willing to settle for second best,” he said. “Too many chefs today regard themselves first as artists. Corbitt created a beautiful plate, but she gave greater attention to how the food would taste.”
She came to Texas from New York in 1940 to teach home economics, catering and restaurant management at University of Texas.
She had earned a Bachelor of Science from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. She chose the school because “it quietly let a few people know it had extremely high standards.” She credited the school with teaching her how to distinguish the excellent from the second-rate and appreciate the difference.
Her intention was to attend medical school, but The Depression derailed those plans. Her father lost everything and she went to work as a dietician at Presbyterian Hospital in New Jersey and then Cornell Medical Center in New York.
She convinced the doctors that patients would respond better to food that was “better seasoned and more attractive,” but she longed for a more creative outlet for her food.
She had difficulty finding a job outside of a hospital and then received the job offer in Texas.
She didn’t want to accept the job, and later said, “Who the hell wants to go to Texas? Only I didn’t say hell in those days. I learned to swear in Texas.”
Upon arrival in Texas she stepped off the train into the hot, red dirt of Austin, looked around and said, “My God!”
She hated it. And she was angry when two weeks later she was told to prepare a dish using only Texas products. All she had seen so far was fried meat and overcooked vegetables.
“What I thought of Texas products wasn’t fit to print,” Ms. Corbitt admitted in an interview many years later.
She defiantly created a dish with pickled black-eyed peas, garlic, onion, vinegar and oil. She called it Texas Caviar and it was a hit. Many years later, Neiman-Marcus canned it and sold it by the case.
She wanted to go home, but was offered a job with the Houston Country Club that included a salary and apartment. She agreed to take it and stay for a year, only because she was broke and couldn’t afford the train ticket home.
“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. After a year I unpacked the trunk and decided to stay,” Corbitt said in her personal papers, which are kept in the archives at University of Dallas.
She described that she made peace with Texas and became a “Texan by adoption.”
She spent six years with the country club and then four years with Joske’s department store in Downtown Houston. She was fired from Joske’s for not bringing in enough money and disagreeing with store executives.
“Being fired from Joske’s was the best thing that happened to me,” she said.
During her time in Houston she attracted the attention of Stanley Marcus. He tried to persuade her to come to Dallas, but she was not ready to leave Houston. He told her to call day or night if she ever changed her mind.
After leaving Joske’s she accepted a position from long time friend, Herman Brown, to supervise food operations at the newly renovated Driskill Hotel in Austin. She apologized, once again, to Marcus saying she had to do this for Brown, but “eventually I will end up with you.”
She spent four years at the Driskill and made many contacts within the Texas legislature, specifically with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, who she cooked for often. They later tried to recruit her to run the White House kitchen.
After four years at the Driskill, Marcus received a midnight call from Corbitt asking if the offer was still on the table.
Herman had failed to mention he wanted her to manage the whole hotel and not just the food and she couldn’t take it anymore.
Marcus telegrammed the next day with an offer of $1,000 a month, plus annual bonus and a percentage of catering profits.
The rest is Helen Corbitt-Neiman-Marcus history. From 1955 to 1969 she created a legacy that changed the way Texans and Americans cook, entertain and feed their family.
Her first, of five, cookbooks was published in 1957. “Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook” became “THE” book for many housewives and it’s how many women of that era learned to cook. They cherish the book and for many it is stained, falling apart and in need of rebinding.
Corbitt saved every letter, newspaper clipping, photograph, menu and recipe from her career in Texas. All of it was impeccably organized in scrapbooks, file folders and metal accordion-style card catalogs that house thousands of typed index cards that alphabetize and categorize all of her recipes.
All of these items are in the archives at University of Dallas. When Corbitt died in 1978 she split her estate between Skidmore College and University of Dallas.
Around the time Corbitt came to Dallas, the university was taking shape. It was a time when liberalism was taking hold in many colleges and UD rooted its curriculum in the Catholic faith. As a devout Catholic, with a strict Irish upbringing based on high morals and proper lifestyle, she attended mass every morning before work and became one of the universities biggest supporters.
Sybil Novinski is the Director of Archives for the university and began working at the college with her husband in 1960. She has also served as the university’s historian.
She knew Corbitt from a weekly ladies luncheon that was held on campus. She remembers vividly Corbitt’s bright red hair, Irish stature, confidence and imposing presence.
“She really changed cooking. She made us proud of the food here in this country,” Mrs. Novinski said.
I spent an afternoon with Mrs. Novinski going through the many boxes of personal items, papers and photographs from Corbitt’s estate. What I had time to actually see, was just the tip of the iceberg of Corbitt’s well-organized treasures.
I went into the archives regarding Corbitt as someone who transformed the way Texans eat, but came away realizing she had an effect on the entire country.
She proved that American cooking has an honorable place in global cuisine and stayed true to ingredients and recipes that were American in origin. Her focus was on flavorful, home-cooked meals that highlighted the natural flavor of the food without frying, overcooking or over- seasoning. She taught the basics of entertaining and hospitality and kept the décor simple, elegant and approachable.
In 1961 she was the first woman to be awarded the Golden Plate Award, a highly esteemed honor in the food industry given by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association.
She was also inducted into The Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – the world’s oldest and most prestigious food and wine society. The Chaîne was founded in Paris in 1950, with roots dating to 1248 in France. She considered this a high honor because she was recognized for cooking American food with little or no international influence.
Corbitt was well known for her cooking classes for both ladies and men. She gave many classes for charity groups, especially the Dallas Symphony League and would give all the money back to the charity. She raised more than $100,000 for the league through her classes.
“She was very generous,” Mrs. Novinski said. “I don’t think that’s something many people know about her.”
She taught numerous classes in the store, at her home and at Southern Methodist University as part of the continuing education program. To keep costs down for young housewives she would often charge just the cost of food.
For other private groups and clientele her classes could run $75 per person.
In 1968 a group of men demanded equal time in cooking instruction and she created an invitation-only group of 14 men who met in her home every third Wednesday. It was rumored that to get into the group someone had to die or leave town. There was a waiting list of 37 men to be part of the group.
She had another group of 14 women who she taught each month in her home, but that group didn’t garner near as much attention as the men.
She retired from Neiman-Marcus in 1969, but continued as a consultant and began designing menus and recipes for The Greenhouse health and beauty spa that was a new venture for Neiman-Marcus and Charles of the Ritz.
She also continued her classes, travels, writing and entertaining.
After she died in January 1978, Dick Hitt, Dallas Times Herald columnist wrote a heartfelt farewell tribute, “She was a no-nonsense woman. She was capable of humor, often of the rapier variety, but she used it as she would a pungent spice: for hinting at the substance of a point. She was a curious combination of elegance and gust, impatience and painstaking perfectionism, femininity and jaunty zest. She was subtle and imperious, ebullient and unerringly correct. Lots of things that you wouldn’t think would go together in a person, went together in Helen Corbitt. She was a bouillabaisse of a person, part administrator, part hostess, part duchess and part Mother Superior.”
In each of her five books, the final chapter was called ‘This and That’ and was filled advice, ideas and answers to questions. Much of it was gathered from conversations she had with people in her classes, those who wrote to her and tips she felt were important to share.
Reading these chapters make you feel like you are talking with Helen in the kitchen. Her voice guides you through a technique, or she’s walking with you through the grocery aisle and pointing out an unknown ingredient.
Her last book, “Helen Corbitt’s Greenhouse Cookbook” was completed just before her death and was published posthumously. As I was reading through ‘This and That’ from this book I was moved while reading the final entry in the chapter. It was a wise piece of advice from Ms. Corbitt that, from my point of view, sums up her philosophy on life and her culinary legacy.
“Yesterday has gone by; we can do nothing about it. Tomorrow is not yet here, and we can do something to make it more pleasant, especially gastronomically. Give freely of your own time and prepare delightful meals for your family. It is a loving way to spread health and happiness.”
What Would Helen Say?
To capture her personality and bring her wit and advice to life, so many of the stories about Helen Corbitt are better explained in her own words.
She wrote her books and recipes with a good amount of personal comments and advice. Her writing style was conversational and casual and eased the fear of many who were new to cooking.
Here is a collection of quotes from Corbitt from her books, interviews and the newspaper columns.
Opening is a paragraph from her first Kitchen Klatter column that appeared weekly in The Houston Post:
“Every gal has had her druthers and her, ‘I want to be’s’ – to be a Holly wood star, to marry a millionaire (I’ll still take that). I have always wanted to write a column about the thing I like best – food! When I was asked about writing one, I was thrilled to death, because now I had my druthers. I was scared too because I’ll be so busy I probably never will catch that millionaire, and maybe I won’t be able to write about food either, so that anyone else will enjoy reading it.”
On learning to cook:
“To begin with, cooks are made, not born. I certainly never heard of anyone arriving in this world with a rolling pin or a measuring cup in their hand. So sit right down and talk yourself out of the idea that you can’t cook. You just take a recipe and follow it in and out of the kitchen door and you will be all right. But don’t start dashing this or that into it until you know your dashes, and how and when to dash them. After you know basically what you are doing, then dash to your heart’s content.”
The social aspects of coffee and tea:
Did you ever think about people talking and deciding that they talk best with they are bending their elbows over a cup of coffee, tea or what have you? Men the world over have accused the weaker sex of gossiping over their tea, but have you ever listened to men over their cup of coffee? I think you will agree that neither drink because they are thirsty, but for socialibility’s sake.”
The calming effect of tea:
There are more superlatives bouncing in and out of writing pens concerning tea than any other beverage. It is a wonder beverage for those who already live by it and for those who will fall in line sooner or later. It is a real stimulating pickup drink in the morning, or when dashed from over exercise, distressing hours at work and maybe just plain tired from everything. To me, it is a cure for all the things that get the matter with me, especially bad temper, hurting feet and that I-don’t-care-to-go-on-living feeling.”
“You can bet your bottom dollar when you hear somebody say they don’t like vegetables that his mother didn’t like them either and so had no talent as a vegetable cook. Properly cooked, almost any vegetable is good. Good to taste, good to look at and good for you.
More on overcooked vegetables:
Once when a waitress returned a plate to the kitchen because a customer complained the vegetables were raw, Corbitt said, “What do you mean the green beans weren’t done? God put me on this earth to teach Southerners how to cook green beans!”
On hospital food when she was a dietician:
“I got sidetracked by the first hospital tray I saw. I said this can’t be and got involved in all the aspects of feeding patients. Even in 1936 I was known as having better food, more interesting food.”
On Texas food:
“I couldn’t believe the food they were eating. Chicken fried steak, I couldn’t eat one yet. Everything overcooked, salads over-dressed.”
To Stanley Marcus after accepting the Neiman-Marcus job:
“They say Jesus Christ couldn’t please you. I’d like to see whether I can.”
On Stanley Marcus:
“We got along fine. He realized as long as I was not bored I would be happy. And he kept me from being bored. That’s so important. Few people do that today.”
On the Zodiac Room:
“I’m kind of an individualist and he (Marcus) let me go ahead and create my own climate without interference.” The restaurant began to reflect Helen’s ideas and style and was carried out in the linens, dishes, menu design and her favorite color, blue. It was even apparent in the blue sugar on the tables.
Neiman-Marcus Cream of Tomato Soup:
A famous guest was dining with Mr. Marcus at the Zodiac Room where every soup, except one, was made from scratch. “I used Campbell’s with coffee cream and butter added to make it like velvet. He ordered a cup and then a bowl and then he wanted the recipe. I refused to give it to him. Mr. Marcus was hurt and surprised until I explained later we couldn’t tell him he ate Campbell’s soup at Neiman-Marcus.”
Corbitt never married but was engaged three times. “I’m not married, not because I never had the chance, but the last time I was dating someone serious and we went out to eat, I was so tired, I literally went to sleep over the steak.”
From her Ladies Cooking Classes:
During a cooking class Corbitt had enough of the ladies questions about possible substitutions for the dish she was demonstrating and she snapped: “You can substitute anything you like, but if you want to achieve this result, you will follow my directions.”
Another time, a talkative member of the class was wearing down Ms. Corbitt’s patience, “Be quiet! You don’t even know where your kitchen is!”
From her Men’s Cooking Class:
“I had no objections to the wives coming to the dinners as long as they stayed out of the kitchen. The reason was very simple. If I told somebody to do something, say peel the onions, his wife would say, ‘You don’t peel onions,’ … and I can’t take it. I’m sorry, the wives can come and play cards or get drunk or anything they want to, but out of the kitchen.”
Her opening remarks at the first Men’s Cooking Class:
Now, I am not a chef. I am not an exponent of French cooking. I am just an ordinary, American girl who has liked to cook and has had a fair success in teaching other people to do it. Now, you may have done some French cooking, or you watched Julia Child, or somebody and that is fine, but I am going to teach you my way and I don’t particularly care if you think your way is better. In other words, I don’t want an argument. Now you all came to me. I didn’t go to you. Take it or leave it boys. Fair enough?
On men disliking certain foods:
“I don’t want to hear anybody saying that they don’t like something, because you really don’t know whether you like it or not. Most of you have preconceived ideas of what you like and don’t like because your mother didn’t like them. When I entertain at my home, I am noted for calling up the people that I invite and saying, ‘What does your husband not like?’ and then I serve that; and you know they eat two or three servings and then turn to their wives and say, ‘Why don’t you have that at home?’”
Cooking with alcohol:
“Don’t be afraid to cook with alcohol. The sin and the spirits disappear in the air.”
Weight loss at The Greenhouse:
“A Houston woman recently complained that she didn’t lose any weight during her stay. I suggested next time she gather up the chocolate bar wrappers and put them in her purse instead of throwing them in the wastebasket in her room.”
Corbitt describing herself:
“I like to use good linen. I like good china. I’m very concerned with how things look. I don’t like my table all glopped up with a lot of extra stuff. I’m a simple person. Nobody believes that. But I’m really very uncomplicated.”
“I have always paid for the best. I’ve kept demanding and demanding. My father told me never to accept anything I don’t like.”
“I give people three chances to do things my way. After that, watch out. To that extent, I am hard to get along with. Perfection is hard on everybody, even me.”
“The only people I criticize without being asked are my students. Men are more sensitive to criticism than women. I like to teach men because they don’t care what a meal costs. The women I have are very wealthy and they always want to know if it can be done cheaper.”
Editor's Note: Next week in FLAVOR, part 2 of This and That with Helen Corbitt. Reader's favorite Corbitt recipes and personal stories from The Zodiac Room and Corbitt's cookbooks. Christine Gardner will also be conducting a cooking class at Sweet Gourmet in Tyler on October 21. The class will feature notes from Corbitt's cooking classes, favorite recipes and tips for entertaining. For more information or to register for the class, call 903-534-0840.