By BOB VICKREY
Back in my early days as a publisher’s rep, I traveled to Dallas for a luncheon with Southwest cooking legend Helen Corbitt and Stanley Marcus, the Founder and President of Neiman Marcus, to arrange a book signing party launching Corbitt’s latest cookbook, “Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company.”
Helen was then Executive Chef at Neiman’s famed Zodiac Room, and our upcoming event was expected to rival just about any Dallas social shindig that year.
Long before I had left for Dallas, my publishing peers had already warned me that Helen could be difficult and impatient and was also known for being an unapologetic perfectionist. Since she was well aware that I would be the person responsible for placement of her new book into local stores, as well as booking upcoming signings, she leaned over during our meeting and pecked me on the cheek while whispering, “I know where my bread is buttered.”
To my great astonishment, she asked if she could cook dinner for me at her home that evening. The invitation might have made a more cautious and wiser man somewhat intimidated about such an offer from the famous chef, but at my tender young age, I owned neither of those traits and accepted gladly without any hesitation.
After Helen had playfully insulted Mr. Marcus and his publicity director several times during that day’s luncheon, I began to understand why several of my co-workers in the home office had been apprehensive about taking her phone calls. Little did they know that I was not taking the shellacking they had received, and instead, was being treated in rather princely fashion by the feared cookbook author.
Helen was New York-born and educated, and had published her first cookbook with Houghton Mifflin in 1957, which almost single-handedly had forever influenced a generation of Texans’ cooking habits. She had introduced gourmet cuisine to a state priding itself on its barbecue, Mexican food and chicken fried steak.
She had created one of her signature dishes, “Texas Caviar” with black-eyed peas, and also became known for her “Poppy-seed” dressing which would eventually become a staple in kitchens throughout the Southwest.
Long before Julia Child splashed onto the national scene, virtually every Texan knew that Corbitt had already established herself as a pioneering gourmet chef. The Duke of Windsor once called Corbitt’s dishes “Fit for a King,” and President Lyndon Johnson liked her beef stroganoff so much that he had extended an invitation to come to the White House and take charge of the dining room for State dinners.
As I approached Helen’s Highland Park home that evening, I had to admit that this particular dinner engagement represented no ordinary evening for me. I was normally accustomed to raiding my meagerly-stocked Frigidaire at night for dinner leftovers. Some of the mysterious items found on those shelves had often been there long enough that they might well have been carbon-dated.
Helen lived upstairs in a modest duplex. The place was as elegant as might have been expected from this world traveler, but still seemed rather humble and informal given her fame and stature in the cooking world. Even the kitchen wasn’t as large as I had expected, but there was plenty of room for me to sit and watch her cook our evening meal as we sipped a French Cabernet Sauvignon.
Helen prepared one of her celebrated grapefruit and avocado salads, and she made the beef stroganoff dish that LBJ had loved so much. I must admit that I secretly enjoyed the fact I was at her table this night while dining on his favorite dish—and the ex-President was not.
We talked well into the night and she told me about the hushed politics at a certain ritzy clothing store in town. We laughed over some of the follies of the publishing business and polished off the bottle of cabernet as she reminisced about her adventures in Paris as a young woman.
As I drove back to the hotel dreamily replaying my delightful evening, I pictured Helen as having hosted a much more elaborate dinner party with the Duke of Windsor years earlier, but surmised he was probably accustomed to enjoying such fine elegant meals.
I wondered why she had turned down the President’s invitation to come to the White House, but assumed she normally faced a formidable daily social schedule of her own, while spending portions of her day working on her next book.
I toyed with the idea of feasting in this elegant style every night, but the inevitable prospect of a return to Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pie dinners from my refrigerator freezer was essentially a foregone conclusion.
As I neared my hotel, I realized that my pleasant evening had paralleled a certain fairy tale, and that my “carriage” would shortly be transformed into a pumpkin—or more precisely—a worn-out Ford Fairlane. However, I suddenly took heart when I remembered a bold promise that was prominently emblazoned on the label of those Swanson pot pies. The maker proudly advertised their dinners as: “A FEAST FIT FOR A KING.”
The newly discovered assurance of the Swanson pledge of distinction lifted my spirits. It provided the very validation I had needed to realize that the daily dining habits of the Duke of Windsor and the former President could hardly surpass the elegant feasts that were regularly coming out of my very own oven. However, the image of the less-than-stately TV tray I dined on each evening might perhaps best be kept as my own undisclosed secret.
Eventually, Helen’s unforgettable dishes became nothing more than fond memories for the Duke, the President and me. But when we each had returned to our regular daily lives, I became aware there were likely significant nuances in matters of dinner presentation—given the slight differences in our lifestyles. But it was still a great feeling to know that all three of us would continue to dine in grand style, just like the splendid “Kings” we were each born to be.
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and was cited by the California Newspaper Publishing Association for column writing awards in 2016 and 2017. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.