Friday, September 19, 2008

Yo! Helen - Dallas Giving You Love Yet?

Tracking down local information about Helen Corbitt has become a mission for me - was she ever in Les Dames? AIWF? Any "Helen Corbitt Day" ever named for her by the city? Besides the undying adoration of Stanley Marcus (he called her "My Wild Irish Rose") did Dallas give her any love? During my investigation, I was referred to Debbie Ryan by friend Paula Lambert, they grew up together in Fort Worth and both have been Dallas residents for many years. Helen was the Ryan's tenant from 1976 to 1978, renting the upstairs half of a duplex at Armstrong and University Blvd.

During these days Helen was no longer Director of Food at Neiman Marcus, but she was still close to and would dine often with NM executives. Post-Neimans she worked for a few years for the Greenhouse in Dallas and The Hedges, a cooking school in Fort Worth. According to Debbie, when Helen moved in she immediately insisted that the gas stove had to be replaced with a new General Electric range. She also preferred working with men both in business and at her "men-only" cooking classes she held regularly at her upstairs unit.

Debbie was also an employee at Neiman's when Helen was the Food Director there. Every day in the employee lunch room there would be experimental dishes that she was perfecting available at a very low cost. She did not believe in scrimping on product and had high standards on presentation of food - her food typified Dallas, Big Food, Big Impact. "Salads at Neiman Marcus used a whole head of lettuce, and large chunks of chicken so you would know what you were eating", recalled Ms. Ryan. At the same time, her food was not considered fancy, Thanksgiving hams at Ms. Corbitt's duplex unit were from Kroger and she served pancakes stacked to look like a cake for breakfast.

University of Dallas was the beneficiary of most of Helen's personal items after she passed away, including an extensive majolica collection that Stanley Marcus had presented to her, one piece at a time over the years. Current restaurant director and NM V.P. Kevin Garvin was instructed to "get to know Helen Corbitt", even though she had died 16 years previously, and so went to UD to study her personal recipe collections. He credits her with a food vision that extended beyond her years at Neiman's utilizing only fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, necessitating only an updating of some of her classic recipes, not a full bore revision of the menu when he started there.

I'm not giving up on this search, like I really want to see her 1961 Golden Plate Award - she was the first woman to win this distinction by the IFMA, so maybe I'll see if I can get in to see her stuff at UD. And who knows, maybe I'll get her a "Helen Corbitt Day" yet, the city seems to be in a naming mood lately.

No comments: