The Texas Chefs Hall of Fame: 1981 and Now
Assistant music editor Craig Hlavaty recently purchased a 1981 edition of The Genuine Texas Handbook, a guide to all things Texan. It's an often-tongue-in-cheek look at the people, places, outfits, songs, foods and more that made someone Texan 31 years ago. Incidentally, the book and I are the same age, so we'll be featuring excerpts from the handbook's food chapter (entitled, fittingly, "Love & Lard") over the next few weeks to see how Texas has changed during the course of this food writer's lifetime.
Near the very beginning of author Rosemary Kent's chapter on Texas foods, she lists seven food personalities worthy of inclusion in a hypothetical Texas Cooks Hall of Fame.
One was from Houston (I'll give you one guess as to who that was). And at least three of them were personally connected to Lyndon Baines Johnson, something I couldn't quite understand until my boyfriend pointed out that LBJ had been our last -- and most significant, until that time -- Texan president. And LBJ's rather enormous impact on the way Texas and Texans were viewed translates into the culinary arena as well.
We also got a chuckle at how the food personalities were listed as "cooks," rather than chefs -- something you'd never see now, in the era of chef-as-rock-star-king. And just which cooks made the list?
Helen Corbitt: Director of Neiman-Marcus restaurants, creator of low-calorie menu for The Greenhouse. Famous for her poppy seed dressing, ice cream molded into flowerpots, and "Texas caviar" (pickled black-eyed peas). Responsible for putting blue sugar in the N-M Zodiac room.
Since much of The Genuine Texas Handbook is tongue-in-cheek (think of it as Texas's answer to The Official Preppy Handbook published just one year earlier), it's often difficult to tell when Kent is being genuine in her praise. On one hand, the inclusion of Corbitt seems a bit silly to us now -- poppy seed dressing and kitschy ice cream presentations? -- but Texas caviar is still a popular dish today, and it's hard to argue against the impact that Neiman-Marcus and its swanky cafes had on the 1980s.
And remember: Corbitt was a highly respected cookbook author and the very first woman to ever win a Golden Plate Award. It's also interesting to see the very first roots of more health-conscious dining popping up in meat-friendly Texas, although it's no surprise that those roots grew out of the high-profile ladies-who-lunch scene in Dallas. Corbitt was who our grandmothers aspired to be, and her cookbooks were their guide to dignified, at-home entertaining.
Walter Jetton: LBJ's personal barbecuer, called the King of Barbecue; was forever dragging his chuck wagon and chowhounds down to the LBJ ranch to barbecue for world dignitaries.
This is a no-brainer. Hell, I know people who have named their children after Walter Jetton (although not pronounced the same way; Jetton himself pronounced his name "Jet-TAHN)." Jetton cooked the first Presidential barbecue in United States history on December 29, 1963.
That barbecue, in fact, was LBJ's very first state dinner. Jetton smoked his signature meat for 300 people, and they ate his ribs and brisket in the Stonewall High School gymnasium to the sounds of Van Cliburn playing the piano. A more Texan affair was probably never had.
Mary Faulk Koock: Founder of Green Pastures Restaurant in Austin; close friend of LBJ family and Texas governors. A big help with culinary projects during the Texas HemisFair. Serves the biscuits Van Cliburn can't stop eating. Clever party hostess, planner.
Again, the fact presents itself that cooking 30 years ago was far less about going out and far more about entertaining in your own home. (Even the Johnsons knew this, entertaining on their own ranch near the Pedernales.) In an interesting side note, Koock was the sibling of radio host John Henry Faulk, best known as the University of Texas alum who sued the McCarthy-backed Red Channels after being blacklisted and labeled a Communist -- and won. This lawsuit effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist.
Koock herself was a very famous cookbook author whose Austin restaurant -- Green Pastures -- was a bit like an early version of The French Laundry. Koock lived at Green Pastures before eventually turning the sprawling estate -- her ancestral home -- into what is now known as the "grande dame of Austin restaurants." Calling Koock a "clever party hostess" is doing her a bit of a disservice, too: She was the state's premier hostess for three decades in the mid-20th century, and James Beard himself was sent from New York City to help her publish the Lone Star State's "definitive" cookbook in 1965, The Texas Cookbook.