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Queen of Texas Cuisine

Written by Lori Grossman.

It took a determined Yankee to teach Texans that they could eat—and enjoy—something besides their beloved barbecue and chicken-fried steak.

Born in 1906 in upstate New York, Helen Corbitt graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in home economics. After working as a dietitian in New Jersey and New York, Helen accepted a position at the University of Texas at Austin teaching catering and restaurant management in 1940.

Two years later, Helen left for a job at the Houston Country Club. Initially dubious about remaining in Texas, she finally decided to stay. In her first cookbook, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook (1957), she singled out her time in Texas as the “most happy days of my food career.”

She later returned to Austin in the early 1950s to manage the Driskill Hotel’s dining room and catering business. Politicians who ate there appreciated food that looked as good as it tasted. During Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, Helen’s recipes frequently appeared on White House menus.

In 1955, her culinary talent caught the eye of high-end retailer Stanley Marcus, and he brought her to Dallas to direct Neiman Marcus’ food-services department. Businesspeople and shoppers alike flocked to the flagship store’s Zodiac Room (now called The Zodiac) to enjoy lunch, beginning their meals with Helen’s signature dish: chicken consommé served in tiny cups.

Among her most famous innovations were Texas Caviar (using black-eyed peas), Snowballs (frosted cake cubes rolled in coconut), Flowerpots (yellow cake, ice cream, and meringue served in clay pots), and Poppyseed Dressing. (Corbitt denied creating the dressing, stating that she only popularized it.)

Helen died on January 16, 1978, but her culinary prowess influenced folks for years to come, including Stan-ley Marcus, who compared her to the famous fashion designer Cristóbal Balen-ciaga, calling her the “Balenciaga of Food.” The Duke of Windsor pronounced her dishes “fit for a king!”

Responsible for spearheading a food revolution in her adopted state, Helen Corbitt once said, “Life, and especially Texas, has been good to this Yankee girl.”

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From the September 2007 issue.

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