Helen Corbitt: More than the woman who gave Dallas poppy-seed dressing?

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Long before that warbling francophile, Julia Child, forward-thinking Helen Corbitt — Texan, Dallasite, author — was dazzling ’em at the dinner table. Here’s why

by BILL THOMPSON / THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Helen Corbitt, circa 1970

 

She will always be remembered by some as the woman who gave Dallas poppy-seed dressing.

Long before Southwest cuisine or nouvelle anything, Helen Corbitt was the single most important name associated with food in Texas and the Southwest. Corbitt, who died in 1978, was recognized for four decades as an eminent figure in the food world. Famous as a hostess and cook, Corbitt came to Neiman Marcus in 1955 to take up the post of director of restaurants. She already had a considerable Texas following, having worked in both Houston and Austin. Corbitt began touting the joys of lamb when she was running the Houston Country Club and often served it to cattle-raising oilmen who thought a shrimp cocktail, steak, baked potato and apple pie made an ideal menu. She introduced them to Crown Roast Lamb with Mushroom Souffle in the center; they adored it and raised her salary.

She had not been in Dallas long before the luncheon crowd in the Zodiac Room at Neiman Marcus started growing more masculine by the day. Businessmen began to outnumber lady shoppers as word got out about the magnificent dishes — things like Curry of Chicken Breasts, Veal Kidneys in Cognac, wondrous salads and desserts that defied resistance. Stanley Marcus called Corbitt “the Balenciaga of food” because of the harmonious color, texture and taste of the plates she served.

With an almost perverse pleasure, Corbitt turned traditionally unpopular foods into alluring dishes. At the same time she was directing operations at the Zodiac Room, Corbitt was teaching others to cook, both in Dallas and in the traveling Helen Corbitt Cooking Schools. Her audiences always included men, and that suited Corbitt fine since she felt they made good students and good cooks. Her Dallas cooking class for men was like an exclusive club.

Corbitt’s seven cookbooks appeal to cooks even today because she was years ahead of the popular cuisine of her time. When I became her literary agent in 1956, she was bringing to Neiman Marcus, in her everyday menus, innovations considered haute cuisine 25 years later.

Adapted from a November 1987 story in The Dallas Morning News, by ELIZABETH ANN JOHNSON, Helen Corbitt’s literary agent

 

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