Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Julia Child of Texas

Helen Corbitt was born on January 25, 1906 in upstate New York. After receiving a degree in home economics from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, her plans for medical school fell apart as a result of the Great Depression. She began work as a therapeutic dietitian in New Jersey and New York before being offered a teaching position at the University of Texas in Austin. She reportedly told the Dallas Times Herald, "Who the hell wants to go to Texas?," "Only I didn't say 'hell' in those days. I learned to swear in Texas." Only a few weeks after arriving, she was requested to cater a convention using only Texas products, which in those days was stark to say the least. However, Helen pushed up her sleeves and created a sublime mixture of black eyed peas, garlic, onion, vinegar, and oil, which became known as the legendary "Texas Caviar."

Helen's career took off, working at the Houston Country Club, the Driskill Hotel (where she fed the likes of Lyndon Johnson, who used many of her recipes at the White House), before finding her perfect fit at the Zodiac Room in 1955, at the Neiman Marcus flagship store in Dallas. With her focus on using only the freshest ingredients, the Zodiac Room was a huge success with appreciative Texans. She cooked for movie stars, socialites, royalty, and dignitaries, as well as the general public who could treat themselves at the standup counter on the main floor. According to Stanley Marcus's memoir Minding the Store, after complaining that the Zodiac Room has never showed profit, Helen 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."

After retiring from Neiman Marcus in 1969, she began lecturing around the country and writing cookbooks. Her first cookbook, Helen Corbitt's Cookbook (1957), sold more than 300,00 copies and is a mainstay in many Texas homes. With their worn-out pages still lovingly used today, I would be remiss not to share one of her most famous creations, "Poppy Seed Dressing," used for her "Citrus and Avocado Salad," which I lovingly call "Texas Sunshine Salad." The original recipe calls for Texas's renowned Ruby red grapefruit, but I actually prefer to use navel oranges. The combination of the sweet vinaigrette, creamy avocado, and tart citrus is surprisingly delicious! I find it a pleasing counterpart to Texas and Mexican cuisine, and especially refreshing on frigid winter days to remind us that the summer sun will soon be here again!

Texas Sunshine Salad (Citrus and Avocado Salad)

Serves 4

2 grapefruits or oranges
2 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded, and sliced
Lettuce leaves to form the base of the salad (I use 1 large head of Boston lettuce in this recipe.)
Poppy seed dressing (recipe follows)

First cut the ends off each grapefruit/orange. Set cut-side down on cutting board and run a knife down each side in an arch shape to remove the peel and white pith. With a sharp knife, slice into each section along the inside of each membrane. Repeat with the remaining sections. Set aside. Can be refrigerated until ready to use.

Just before serving, arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter. Decoratively arrange the avocado slices and grapefruit/orange segments on top of the lettuce. Drizzle some poppy seed dressing over the salad, serving extra dressing at the table. Serve at once!

Helen Corbitt's Poppy Seed Dressing

Makes approximately 2 cups (This recipe can easily be reduce by half.)

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon grated onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika (optional)
1 cup oil, preferably canola and never olive oil
1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Place everything in a mason jar and shake until emulsified. (Or you can use a food processor if you like to clean them...) Will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Shake before using.

Thanks to Texas Monthly, "Tastemaker of the Century-Helen Corbitt," written by Prudence Mackintosh, December 1999.
Recipe adapted from Helen Corbitt's Cookbook, and Texas Home Cooking.