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The Texas Chefs Hall of Fame: 1981 and Now

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.

 

Ninfa Laurenzo: Turned her Houston tortilla factory into a Mexican food empire. Responsible for inventing and marketing "tacos al carbon." Dared to use Italian seasonings with her Tex-Mex dishes.

Another clear-cut inclusion on the list, Ninfa Laurenzo and her blended Mexican-Italian family were responsible not only for the proliferation of fajitas or "tacos al carbon" throughout Texas, but for helping bring the Mandola family to Houston from Rhode Island. From Mama Ninfa came Ninfa's, yes, but also such diverse restaurants as Bambolino's (although there's only one location now, there used to be 17), El Tiempo and Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen.

The Texas Chefs Hall of Fame: 1981 and Now
Frank X. Tolbert: Known as the "Godfather of Chili" in Texas. Co-founded the Terlingua World's Championship Chili Cookoff; has own chili parlor in Dallas. His cookbook is considered the chili Bible.

Frank Tolbert was such a well-known and universally beloved figure in the 1980s that his death -- in Texas -- was reported by The New York Times, which called him simply " a longtime newspaper columnist and lover of chili." You can still get his famous chili recipe at Tolbert's in Dallas.

Tolbert's book, A Bowl of Red, is still a fascinating tome on the history of chili in Texas, full of rambling but fascinating essays and time-tested recipes that still make a tremendously good bowl of chili. His life as an author and columnist for The Dallas Morning News is also a tribute to the fact that a degree is a useless piece of paper if you have passion for something: Tolbert attended no fewer than four Texas universities and didn't graduate from a single one.

Joseph "Cap" Warren: Chuck wagon boss for fifty years at Waggoner Ranch. Fed hundreds of hungry cowboys daily; carried his Dutch oven and frying pans in a cowhide sling under rear axle. Wearing an apron made of two flour sacks, his specialties were fried steak and sourdough biscuits.

Cap Warren is perhaps most well-known thanks to Frank Tolbert, who once quoted the chuck wagon boss as saying: "Cowboys today is mostly a crowd of sissies." Of course, you'd have to be a tough son-of-a-bitch to be the head cook at the massive Waggoner Ranch for 50 years; the West Texas spread was barely second in size to the King Ranch at over 520,000 acres and long one of the most profitable -- and therefore busiest -- cattle ranches anywhere.

Warren was eminently quotable, in fact, and a fount of information on the many ways in which Texan frontier dining had changed over half a century and since Warren himself started out as a range cook in 1912: "If I was cooking for real cowboys," he said in 1966, "I wouldn't have nothing but beef and bread and coffee this morning. Not with this bunch here, though. They got to have their fruit juices when they get up. And they got the gall to tell the cook how they want their eggs did."

 

The Texas Chefs Hall of Fame: 1981 and Now
Zephyr Wright: LBJ's personal cook at the White House and at the LBJ Ranch. Developed Pedernales River Chili. Famous for her White House hash and for trying to keep LBJ on a diet.

Once again, Kent does a great woman a great disservice by noting her for something as simplistic as keeping the president on a diet. Zephyr Wright had far more of an influence on LBJ than solely on his waistline. In fact, many historians attribute some of the Johnson administration's work in the Civil Rights movement to the impact that Wright made on both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird.

A maid from my grandmother's hometown of Marshall, Wright became the housekeeper and cook for Lady Bird Johnson when Wright was only in her early twenties. She remained with the Johnsons for decades, becoming a de facto member of their family. Wright developed popular recipes -- including that Pedernales River Chili -- that are still revered to this day. But Leonard H. Marks, director of the U.S. Information Agency during the Johnson administration, once told NPR of a far greater legacy that Wright left behind:

Many say that Lyndon, because he came from the South, didn't believe in civil rights. Lady Bird had two people as hired help, Zephyr and Sammy Wright. Zephyr was the maid and cook, and Sammy was the chauffeur. At one of the luncheons I attended before Johnson became president, Zephyr was serving when Lyndon told her that she and Sammy should get ready to drive to Austin. The family would join them later. She said, "Senator, I'm not going to do it." There was silence.

She said, "When Sammy and I drive to Texas and I have to go to the bathroom, like Lady Bird or the girls, I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. I have to find a bush and squat. When it comes time to eat, we can't go into restaurants. We have to eat out of a brown bag. And at night, Sammy sleeps in the front of the car with the steering wheel around his neck, while I sleep in the back. We are not going to do it again."

LBJ put down his napkin and walked out of the room. Later, when Johnson became president and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Zephyr was there. Johnson motioned to her, gave her the pen that he used to sign the bill. He said, "You deserve this more than anybody else."

Who would you nominate as the seven Texas chefs for inclusion in the Texas Cooks Hall of Fame today? Here are our picks:

Robert del Grande, Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing: The three men who helped found the Southwestern cuisine movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and helped elevate upscale Texas cooking in Dallas and Houston to nationally regarded levels.

Michael Cordúa: The first chef to introduce significant Latin American influences into Texan cooking that weren't from Mexico, and whose restaurants -- Churrascos, Américas, Artista and Amazón Grill -- are still relevant today.

Monica Pope: James Beard nominee, Top Chef: Masters contestant and the only Texas woman to ever be named a Top 10 Best New Chef by Food & Wine, Pope helped introduce and popularize the concept of locavorism with restaurants such as The Quilted Toque, Boulevard Bistrot and t'afia.

Hugo Ortega: Another James Beard nominee and ultimate American success story, Mexican immigrant Ortega showed that Mexican food is more than just fajitas and enchiladas -- it can be upscale, destination dining, too.

Tyson Cole: James Beard winner and commander of the Uchi empire, Tyson Cole epitomizes the new wave of young turk chefs who are changing the way Texas cuisine is perceived at a national level. It's adventurous, highly modern and yet still in keeping with our Lone Star roots.



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