SWAPPING STATE DINNERS FOR TV DINNERS
By Bob Vickrey
Actress Meryl Streep’s skillful portrayal of the great gourmet chef Julia Child in the 2009 movie “Julie and Julia” prompted a vivid memory of my first meeting with Southwest cooking legend Helen Corbitt.
In the early 1970’s I traveled to Dallas as a publisher’s representative for a luncheon with Helen and Stanley Marcus, President of Neiman Marcus, to arrange a book signing party launching Corbitt’s latest cookbook. She was then Executive Chef at Neiman’s famous Zodiac Room, and our upcoming event was expected to rival any Dallas social shindig that year.
Long before I had left home in Houston, my publishing peers had already warned me that Helen could be difficult, impatient, and an unapologetic perfectionist. However, knowing that I would be the one responsible for ultimately getting her new book into local stores and booking the upcoming signings for her, she leaned over to me during the meeting and whispered, “I know where my bread is buttered.”
To my great astonishment, she asked if she could cook dinner for me at her house that evening. The invitation might have made a more cautious and wiser man somewhat anxious about such an offer from the famous chef, but at my tender young age, I owned neither of these traits and accepted without any hesitation.
After Helen playfully insulted Mr. Marcus and his publicity director several times during our luncheon, I began to understand why several of my co-workers had been apprehensive about taking her phone calls. Little did they know that I was not taking the shellacking they had expected and was instead being treated in a rather princely fashion by the feared cookbook author.
The New York-born Corbitt had published her first cookbook in 1957; it almost single-handedly changed Texans’ cooking habits forever. She introduced gourmet cuisine to a state priding itself on its barbecue, Mexican food, and chicken fried steak. She created ‘Texas caviar’ with black-eyed peas and became famous 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 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 back home for dinner leftovers which appeared to have maintained their original color. Many of the mysterious items found on those shelves could well have been carbon-dated if I had owned the skills of an archaeologist.
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 enough room for me to sit and watch her cook our evening meal as we sipped a French Cabernet Sauvignon.
Helen prepared one of her famous 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 dining on hisfavorite dish—and the ex-President wasn’t. We talked well into the night and she told me about the hushed politics at a certain ritzy clothing store. 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 formal dinner with the Duke of Windsor years earlier, but surmised he was probably accustomed to enjoying fine elegant meals, what with the charmed lifestyle he led. I wondered why she had turned down the President’s invitation to come to the White House, but assumed he already employed a renowned chef and gourmet dinners were nightly standard fare for him as well.
I toyed with the idea of feasting in this style every night, but the inevitable prospect of a return to Swanson’s chicken potpie dinners from my refrigerator freezer was essentially a foregone conclusion.
As I neared my hotel, I realized that my enchanting 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. I suddenly took heart, however, when I remembered a bold promise prominently emblazoned on the label of those frozen chicken potpies. In large print the maker advertised these dinners as: “A FEAST FIT FOR A KING.”
The newly discovered assurance of the Swanson’s 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 regularly coming out of my very own oven. The image of the TV tray I dined on each evening might ultimately alter the perception of the relative stateliness of my banquet experience and was best kept my undisclosed secret.
Eventually, Helen’s unforgettable dinners became nothing more than fond memories for the Duke, the President, and me. When we each had returned to our regular lives, I was aware there may have been minor nuances of presentation and service in matters of dinner routines, given the slight differences in our lifestyles. It was still a great feeling to know we would all continue to dine in the grand style, like the splendid ‘Kings’ we were each born to be.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern daily newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades.