HOUSEHOLD WORDS

Some of the best cooks in Dallas have written some of the best cookbooks.

Some people who come to Dallas want to meet Roger Staubach. When I came, I wanted to meet Helen Corbitt. I knew who Helen Corbitt was from the Dallas section of Mary Faulk Koock’s The Texas Cookbook (Little, Brown, $9.95), in which she is described as “the greatest cook in Texas.” I promptly bought the three books Helen had then published.

Director of Restaurants for Neiman-Marcus and the first woman to win the food industry’s Golden Plate Award, Helen was to Dallas cuisine what Escof-fier was to French or Julia Child to American-the essential pioneer-prophet. The prose in Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, $7.95), published in 1957, is lamentable: The dedication is “to the men in my life” and on one page alone you read “in the know,” “fair sex,” and “giving it a whirl.” Helen wrote like a garrulous old maid aunt, a style she was to perfect, if that’s the word, in Helen Corbitt’s Potluck (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95), Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks $5.95), and Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company $10.00). She never gave up such passionate declarations as “A fan am I of Bibb lettuce!”

But the point is, she was a fan of Bibb lettuce when other cooks in Dallas were still chopping iceberg, adding a dab of mayonnaise, and calling it a salad. She gave many Dallasites the courage and knowledge to try chicken Kiev, coq au vin, pheasants Madeira, steak and kidney pie, and popovers, which she made famous at the Zodiac Room. Her vegetable dishes are good-try the scalloped onions and almonds in Cookbook. Her desserts are fairly easy to make. Though they are sometimes too sweet and rich, they are interesting. She exceeded herself in her most popular dessert, which she called “flowerpots.” Flowerpots are miniature baked Alaskas in clay pots, their meringue adorned with fresh flowers in season or holly berries for Christmas. Well, fashions change.

I bought Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks thinking it was about pretty food, but it’s not; it’s about food to make you pretty. Helen planned menus and nutrition for the Greenhouse, the elegant and famous beauty spa owned by Neiman’s; this book contains a month of menus, and is calculated for a five-to-seven-pound-a-week weight loss. Problem is, you have to be rich to lose weight with Helen. Sample items include broiled king crab legs, ginger roasted rib eye of beef, fresh asparagus, rack of lamb, bouillabaisse salad, potted quail, and roasted capon with truffle sauce, all in modest portions, of course. Modest portions, indeed; I’d kill for seconds of such fare. Diet food has to taste nasty to work, doesn’t it?

Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company is her masterpiece, a book to dream on as much as to use. In it Helen provides menus for all kinds of parties: brunches, teas and receptions, luncheons, seated and buffet dinners, Sunday nights, late suppers, cocktail buffets, picnics. My idea of a fancy picnic is fried chicken and potato salad, and of a plain one, bread, cheese, and wine. Helen’s idea is “fresh caviar with hot flageolets and leg of lamb in pastry” or “cold boiled lobster tail, cold tarragon chicken, and almond cream cake.” Like Isak Dinesen’s nature excursions in Out of Africa, Helen’s picnics require champagne, crystal, “and perhaps a candelabra, to give it a flair.” Ah wilderness.

In spite of such grandiose ideas, Helen could concoct inexpensive and foolproof recipes. My copy of Company opens automatically to cold yogurt soup and spinach vichyssoise, to julienne breast of chicken with chanterelles and wild rice with grapes, to mushrooms au cresson in crepes, and to a wonderful little number Helen dubbed baked bean bash, but that I have served to scores of SMU students as freshman casserole.

Helen Corbitt died last year. Although I never met her, her spirit has graced some of the happiest hours in my Dallas kitchen. Thanks to her, I’m one of “the fair sex” “in the know,” “giving it a whirl.”

If Helen would have us all taking champagne glasses to the woods, the Junior League of Dallas has even more elaborate ideas. At the beginning of The Dallas Junior League Cookbook (Taylor Publishing, $8.95), menus and tips are suggested for special occasions ranging from Black Tie Fortieth Birthday Party (“Use birthdates rather than names to mark the placecards”) to Grandmother’s Baby Shower (as Grandmother’s friends arrive, “offer each chilled wine in a large wine glass enhanced with a dainty pink rose bud tied on with white satin ribbon”).

My own favorite of these occasions is Lunch on a Private Jet, where one is whisked off to an unknown destination while being plied with Bloody Marys, avocado boats filled with crab and caviar, and slices of Persian melon and kiwi fruit, with a fresh camellia tucked into each napkin for an elegant surprise. I want to go, too.

A few of the recipes in The Dallas Junior League Cookbook are credited to Dallas restaurants-the Pyramid Room, Oz, Arthur’s, Mario’s, and The Old Warsaw- and all of them are signed. If you’re outside Dallas society-as, heaven knows, I am-it’s fun to try to conjure up a personality from the recipes supplied. I counted no less than 23 recipes from Mrs. Mark Lemmon Jr., for example, for such entries as lobster tart, artichoke soup, caraway French fries, and Hazel’s fresh coconut cake.

Mrs. Lemmon is obviously imaginative, ambitious, and tireless-or else Hazel is.

Noted Cookery (Dallas Symphony Orchestra League, $7.50) reads like another Who’s Who-Arthur Fiedler’s Hungarian goulash, Joan Crawford’s meat loaf, Leontyne Price’s crabmeat imperial, Greer Garson’s English trifle, Dorothy Kirsten’s l’osso bucco- but aside from its snob appeal, it’s a marvelous cookbook. A selection of menus, a foreword, and 20 recipes were contributed by our old friend Helen Corbitt, and an informative section on wine is by the redoubtable Victor Wdowiak. In addition to the usual categories of meat, fish, salads, and so on, there’s a 30-page section labeled “Texas” where one may find such authentic recipes as Lonesome Acres combination (squash and corn), Texas caviar (pickled black-eyed peas), and Noreen’s barbecued ribs. All in all, a book to sing about.

A runaway best seller in Dallas cookbooks, with 50,000 copies in the past year, is Under the Mushroom (Evergreen Press, $7.50), a collection of recipes from the Little Mushroom restaurant. Under the Mushroom is on sale everywhere, from boutiques to beauty salons, but I don’t think much of it. Many of the recipes depend on canned soups, packaged seasonings, and Velveeta, misspelled “Velvetta” throughout. In large part, it’s a cookbook for people who want to open a lot of cans and envelopes, not to cook. Though we all have such days, on the whole I’d rather have scrambled eggs. One recipe for asparagus pecan bake calls for canned asparagus, canned cream of celery soup, canned water chestnuts, pecans, and “Velvetta.” Frozen daiquiri pie contains frozen daiquiri mix, egg custard mix, and Dream Whip. Ugh!

A quality Dallas cookbook, unpretentious, trustworthy, and beautiful, is the Gallery Buffet Soup Cookbook (Dallas Museum of Fine Arts League, $7.50). Well written, illustrated with ten full-page color photographs of pre-Columbian art from the Museum collection, the book is full of varied and carefully tested soup recipes, many of them used repeatedly at the Gallery Buffet restaurant in the Museum. I’ve had mine only a couple of weeks, but I can already testify to the excellence of the lentil soup, the shrimp cheese chowder, and especially the mulligatawny. There are cream soups, hearty soups, cold soups, fruit soups. It’ll be fun to try the foreign soups, from the familiar gaz-pacho and avgolemeno to the unfamiliar Belgian soups and the Mexican fish soup, chavela. This is a book to be proud of and to use.

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