The House That Helen Built

 

The upscale University Tea House near Waller Creek launched Helen Corbitt’s career—and put UT dining on the culinary map.

What I remember most vividly are the black patent leather Mary Janes and short white cotton gloves that I had on that day. That’s what a proper little girl wore if she was fortunate enough to be taken to lunch at the Tea House on the University of Texas campus circa 1950. I must have been around 7 years old. My mother, in heels and a hat, took my hand and we walked down a stone path that led through a small grove of oak trees to a one-story 1870 frame cottage near Waller Creek.

Located close to present-day Dean Keeton and San Jacinto, the cream-colored building—long since torn down—was lined with wooden casement windows, thrown open to catch the breeze. My recollection of the interior is not so clear as my memory of my shiny new shoes, but photographs from the ’40s show simple high-ceilinged rooms with painted woodwork and hardwood floors. Bold print curtains hang at the windows; a china cabinet holds plates and a large brass or pewter urn. Windsor-style chairs surround pedestal dining tables, and on one wall is a stone fireplace, which must have made the scene quite cozy in winter.

I wish I could tell you exactly what we ate that day at the Tea House (which Mother always referred to as the Tea Room). But I do know with absolute certainty that I was taken there as part of my mother’s grand plan for my cultural education. Mother and her youngest sister, Virginia, had dined often at the Tea House when they were undergraduates at UT in the early ’40s, and the delicious food they consumed made an indelible impression on them. Many a time I heard how they had gladly paid nearly twice the going rate for dinner in Austin for the privilege of eating there. So of course my mother would want her only daughter to share the experience.

What she couldn’t know when she had been a student was that the genius behind the menu, a young UT home economics instructor named Helen Corbitt, was on the cusp of an illustrious career. She would put Neiman-Marcus’ Zodiac Room on the map, receive (and decline) an invitation from Lyndon Johnson to serve as White House chef, and become a household name in Texas for four decades.

The probability of the UT campus being the launch site for Corbitt’s career is no more likely than the red-headed Irish Catholic Yankee ending up there in the first place. Born in Benson Mines, New York, in 1906, Helen Lucy Corbitt earned a degree in home economics from Skidmore College. She worked as a dietitian for several years. Then, in 1940, she got a job offer from UT to teach large-quantity cooking and tea room management. (That would compare today to managing a hotel banquet staff or a corporate dining room.)

She wasn’t pleased about leaving her home. “Who the hell wants to go to Texas?” she later told a reporter. “Only I didn’t say hell in those days. I learned to swear in Texas.” But it was a good job, and Corbitt soon arrived at the home ec building, now Gearing Hall, on 24th Street. After fulminating about Texans’ love of over-cooked vegetables (“God put me on this earth to teach you Southerners how to cook green beans!” she railed), she set about doing things her way. Soon word spread of the tasty meals being turned out in the building’s teaching kitchen and dining room. The frame cottage on Waller Creek became an additional “practice house” in 1939.

What did Corbitt teach? Look at the charming (if obviously staged) photographs accompanying this story. You can see fresh, pretty food of the type that would be served to ladies who lunch: bowls of broth or consommé, what appears to be a salad with sliced tomato, corn on the cob, and possibly a chicken potpie. More important than any single dish, though, were the principles she drilled into her students: use the freshest ingredients, treat them with respect, and present your food with élan.

It was clear the strong-willed perfectionist would not stay forever. After a few years, she took a job with the Houston Country Club, where she dazzled the social elite with the likes of lobster Thermidor, crown roast of lamb, and English peas in aspic. That led to Joske’s department store in Houston, then the Driskill Hotel back in Austin.

It didn’t take long before she was noticed by Stanley Marcus, the taste-making godfather of Neiman-Marcus. He campaigned to get her to work for him, but she was always otherwise engaged. Finally, in 1955, she accepted. As Marcus later wrote, “I received a midnight call from her! . . . ‘Do you still want me?’” ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘When can you get here? By noon tomorrow?’”

The Zodiac Room became Corbitt’s greatest stage, and for 14 years, she made it one of the most sought-after reservations in Texas. Socialites and international celebrities were Neiman’s customers, so on any given day Corbitt might find herself serving Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Princess Margaret, or the Duchess of Windsor. Certain country-clubbish dishes became synonymous with her: heavenly popovers, fruit salad with poppyseed dressing, the Duke of Windsor Sandwich (a glorious mess of roasted chicken breast, pineapple, mango chutney, and cheddar on homemade egg bread), and baked Alaska served in a diminutive flower pot with a blossom poking out of the meringue.

Corbitt finally left Neiman-Marcus in 1969 to consult, teach, lecture, and write, but her star had begun to subtly fade. What happened was that in 1961, a cheery middle-aged Massachusetts woman with curly hair and a squeaky voice had written a book — Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and after that, America plunged into a love affair with a very different type of cuisine. It wasn’t that Helen Corbitt was at odds with Julia Child, but by comparison some of her recipes felt fussy and dated. By the time of her death from cancer, in 1978, the fickle public had moved on.

In 2000, five hundred recipes, mainly from her five cookbooks, were republished in a fitting tribute, The Best From Helen Corbitt’s Kitchens. Today, only a few people remember the feisty Texas icon—some from taking her classes, some from cooking her dishes, and some from having lunch at a small cottage under the oaks on the UT campus.

Patricia Sharpe, BA ’65, MA ’72, is food editor at Texas Monthly.

 

 

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