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Helen Witty, Cookbook Author

Thu, 08/10/2023 - 12:41

Oct. 4, 1921 - July 15, 2023

Helen S. Witty, an author of seven cookbooks and a veteran of the Women's Army Corps during World War II, died on July 15 at Peconic Landing in Greenport. Mrs. Witty, who had lived in Springs for many years, was 101. She had dementia for the last 15 years. 

She was a two-time winner of the R.T. French Tastemaker Award, now called the James Beard Award, according to ckbk, a digital subscription service for cooks. The first was for 1979's "Better Than Store-Bought: Authoritative Recipes for the Foods That Most People Never Knew They Could Make at Home," co-authored with Elizabeth Schneider Colchie, the second for "Mrs. Witty's Monster Cookies," published in 1983. "Mrs. Witty's Home-Style Menu Cookbook" was nominated in 1991.

The second of seven children, she was born on Oct. 4, 1921, in Seattle to George W. Stroop, a civil engineer in the aircraft industry, and the former Nellie Barbara Smith. She grew up there and in Santa Monica, Calif. She attended University High School in Los Angeles and the University of California at Los Angeles, but suspended her schooling to join the Women's Army Corps, or WACs, in February 1943. 

Mrs. Witty served on active duty both stateside and in the Pacific theater until early 1946, joined in service by her younger brother, George, a Navy pilot. She shipped out to the Pacific in May 1944, sailing from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, on the ocean liner America, which was converted to military service as the West Point. Hers was among the first WAC contingents to arrive in Australia -- to great fanfare, including a reception at City Hall. 

For the duration of her service, she worked as an editor, preparing and editing military publications. She was promoted to staff sergeant and then to warrant officer, one of the first women to occupy the rank. She served in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines until after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. She was honorably discharged the following year with the rank of warrant officer junior grade. 

Mrs. Witty's pursuit of a career in editing and journalism began in high school and continued when she resumed her schooling, supported by the G.I. Bill, at Columbia University. Her first editorial job, at Columbia University Press in the late 1940s, led to a long career in publishing, editing, and writing, during which she covered a diversity of subjects. 

At that time a Manhattan resident, she began living part time in Springs in the early 1950s. She and Richard Lee Witty, a publisher, were married at the Amagansett Presbyterian Church on Sept. 7, 1957. Mr. Witty died in 2007. 

Writing under her married name, Mrs. Witty eventually focused on food, authoring well-regarded cookbooks as well as hundreds of magazine articles. She worked as an editor at Cuisine and Food & Wine magazines, and as a freelance editor and consultant. She worked with the food writer Michael Field before his death in 1971, and served as a principal editor for "The Cook's Catalogue," an encyclopedic look at cooking gear. 

As editor for "Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook: An Illustrated Guide to 70 Wild Plants, and Over 350 Irresistible Recipes for Serving Them Up" and, with Burton Wolf, "The Garden-to-Table Cookbook: How to Grow Your Own Food, Put It Up, and Serve It in Over 300 Savory Ways," for which she compiled and contributed recipes, she called on her hands-on experience growing, gathering, and preparing a wide variety of foods. 

"Better Than Store-Bought" launched the "back to basics" specialization, which she followed with, among others, "Fancy Pantry," "The Good Stuff Cookbook," and, with her husband, "Feed the Birds." 

In Springs, she was active at Ashawagh Hall and the annual Fisherman's Fair. She was accomplished at sewing and decorative needlework; she was a gardener, a photographer whose work was published in magazines, a painter and sculptor, and a cat lover. She read The New York Times for 75 years and had a keen interest in politics and world affairs. She was also a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries. 

Mrs. Witty became a year-round resident of Springs in 1982, remaining there until moving to Greenport in 2011. 

She is survived by a daughter, Anne Witty of Georgetown, Me., and a son, George Witty of Cayuga, N.Y. Two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren also survive. Her five sisters and her brother died before her. 

Mrs. Witty's collection of almost 3,000 cookbooks was donated for use by students in the culinary arts program at Suffolk Community College.

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