If we had to pick one food that sums up everything we love about Texas, it wouldn’t be barbecue or a good Tex-Mex platter, though we adore those Lone Star specialties. It would be the elegant yet simple salad known as Texas caviar: black-eyed peas, minced onion, and garlic marinated with oil and vinegar. That dish, invented in 1940 by the chef Helen Corbitt, evokes a significant moment in Texas cooking, when cooks helped usher the state into the gourmet era—not by slavishly imitating the ways of cities in the North but by using the ingredients at hand. Like “Texas tea”, as crude oil has been called, the salad’s name invokes a symbol of sophistication but does so with a wink that seems to say, “We do things differently here.” Oddly enough, Corbitt wasn’t a Texan. She was a New Yorker who moved to Austin in 1940 to take a position as an instructor in restaurant management at the University of Texas. Two weeks into the job, writes Patty Vineyard MacDonald in The Best of Helen Corbitt’s Kitchens (University of North Texas Press, 2000), Corbitt was asked to cater a dinner using only locally available products. The high-end staples she had long relied on—caviar, hearts of palm, and so on—were nowhere to be found in Austin at the time, so she made do with the local ingredients, including those sensational black-eyed peas. Corbitt would go on to become one of the most influential figures in Texas culinary history; between 1957 and her death, in 1978, she penned five cookbooks that have become Texas home cooks’ standards, and she managed the kitchens of some of the state’s best country clubs, hotels, and department stores, including Neiman-Marcus, the Dallas-based retailer, where she worked for 14 years. To Corbitt, all Texas ingredients needed—whether it was Rio Grande Valley grapefruit, which she featured in a salad with poppy-seed vinaigrette, or West Texas pecans tossed with sherry and crumbled over a casserole of sweet potatoes—was a little fancy flourish and, in the case of the caviar, a catchy name.
Caviar and Pearls
One woman celebrated local Texas ingredients long before it was fashionable.