Apr 19, 2024 - News

When the Driskill served matzo balls

A matzo ball recipe.

Matzo ball recipe from Helen Corbitt/Driskill Hotel via University of Dallas

Behold, a 1940s-era matzo ball recipe from the Driskill Hotel, long the high temple of hospitality in Austin.

Why it matters: With Passover set to begin on Monday, this classic, no-frills take on the holiday's centerpiece item shows how much Jewish foods had enmeshed themselves in the American diet — even in the heart of Texas — in the first half of the 20th century.

Between the lines: This recipe is from the files of Helen Corbitt, the doyenne of Texas cooking from the 1940s through the 1970s, overseeing the kitchens at the Driskill and then the chic Nieman-Marcus Zodiac Room in Dallas.

Backstory: In 1940, in her mid-30s, Corbitt moved from New York to Austin to teach kitchen management at the University of Texas.

  • Her feeling at the time was "Who the hell wants to go to Texas?" she once told a reporter. "Only I didn't say 'hell' in those days. I learned to swear in Texas."
  • But a lab developed out of her classes became a popular genteel eatery at 24th and San Jacinto —the University Tea House — and her career was launched.
Helen Corbitt in her kitchen.
No matzo balls present in this undated photo of Corbitt in a home kitchen. Photo courtesy University of Dallas

What they're saying: "She delivered us from canned fruit cocktail, plates of fried brown food, and too much bourbon and branch into a world of airy soufflés, poached fish, chanterelle mushrooms, fresh salsify, Major Grey's Chutney, crisp steamed vegetables, and fine wine," Prudence Mackintosh wrote in Texas Monthly in 1999.

  • Corbitt was also enormously resourceful. Unable to obtain Wesson oil during a stint managing the dining room at the Houston Country Club during the war-ration years, she reportedly bought refined mineral oil from the Humble Oil Company and used it for cooking purposes, Mackintosh wrote.

The bottom line: Corbitt died in 1978, but the Driskill café still carries one of her most beloved recipes, the 1886 chocolate cake.

  • But Corbitt's version of the Passover favorite does not appear on the everyday menus.

🏆 Pro tip: If you're hankering for matzo ball soup, we highly recommend Mum's in East Austin.

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