Did you know that the artist Georgia O’Keeffe liked to read cookbooks in bed?
No, neither did I.
But I’m not so sure that the celebrated painter of luminous New Mexican landscapes, “Mother of American Modernism,” erotic muse and wife of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, actually liked to cook.
Still, after devouring A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe, I do know one thing: she knew exactly what and how she liked to eat.
Sometimes things just fall into place. A few days after I bought the book, now in its second edition, I met the author, Margaret Wood, at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. A cheerful 62-year-old with an infectious laugh and a rather good memory for events that occurred decades ago, she was there to chat about the time she spent as O’Keeffe’s personal cook and companion.
As she recalled those days, Lois Ellen Frank, a local chef and anthropologist, adapted some of the recipes from the book for lunch–among them, a stellar fresh corn soup and a sumptuous Norwegian Apple Pie Cake.
Wood met O’Keeffe in 1977 when she was 24 and the painter was 90. “A friend who had had the job was looking for someone with a lot of patience, who could live in a small town, and who could work for a famous artist,” she recalled. “During my interview, one of her first questions was ‘Can you cook?’”
She got the job. Her hours were from 5PM until 8AM the following morning, and her responsibilities included preparing both dinner and breakfast for “Miss O’Keeffe.” (Never once in the five years she spent there did she address the artist as “Georgia.”)
Learning to cook to O’Keeffe’s exacting standards was “nerve-wracking,” Wood said.
For instance, spinach had to be washed “with the leaves down, stems up.” To remove food from a pan, “Scrape with the edge of the spoon, not the tip.” Lettuce from the garden was “carefully plucked, washed and patted dry so that the herb dressing would adhere to the leaves.”
Naturally there were mishaps. After spilling raspberries in the pantry one day, she spent the next on her hands and knees, scrubbing the stains off the cork floor with baking soda.
The recipes the artist favored were kept in a red notebook called “Mary’s Book,” after a former staff member. Some were developed by O’Keeffe herself, others were gathered from various sources over the years. Although they appear simple–not unlike her pure, nearly abstract paintings–the cooking instructions are very precise.
For instance, here’s a bit from the directions for steaming beet and chard stems: “To steam the beet green stems, first cut them into 3-inch lengths. Chard stems may be cut in halves or thirds lengthwise, then cut into 3-inch segments. Put the stems in the steamer 5-7 minutes before the leaves are added, so that the stalks can steam for 10-12 minutes in all.”
There are no other ingredients in the recipe, apart from “oil/butter” and “herb salt” to taste, and some optional chopped onion. “The hand is austere to be sure,” observes chef and cookbook author Deborah Madison in the foreword. “No dish is encumbered with complicated embellishments; there are no intricate layerings of flavor and textures.”
Viewed from the present, when esoteric ingredients like homemade rhubarb bitters, smoked basmati rice and honey produced by Parisian bees make the food lover’s heart beat a little faster, such simplicity seems like a throwback to an antediluvian era. Recipe titles are stripped bare of all but the basics: There is Beet Soup. Broccoli. Corn on the Cob. Liver and Onions. Vanilla Ice Cream. Ingredient lists are short and to the point, as are the cooking methods: Steam. Bake. Boil. Saute.
The first time I flipped through the cookbook, I thought, “Hmm, boring…”
But I missed the point. As Madison says, “It looks as if nothing special is going on with the recipes, but read between the lines and everything that promises deep goodness is there…O’Keefe’s dishes were the kind of simple foods that radiated the natural complexity of the very things we seek today—namely, food in its season, grown and handled with care.”
This is almost exactly the way that, for example, Alice Waters has always cooked. And it’s the way the current generation of chefs and home cooks look at ingredients. It’s just that O’Keeffe was doing it in the 1940′s.
Now that we are all shopping at farmer’s markets and eating farm to table, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this idea was–but in 1982, when Waters wrote the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, she was one of very few restauranteurs who were focused on cooking seasonally. In one chapter, she writes,”For me, the seasons are the starting points: “I just pick and choose foods for a menu, guided by the stimuli of perfectly ripe tomatoes, succulent spring lamb, a new garlic harvest, or fragrant fresh basil.” Her Summer Menu–Tomato and Rocket Salad, Yellow Squash and Blossom Soup, Grilled Whole Filet of Beef with Deep-Fried Onion Rings, and Honey Ice Cream with Lavender–is the distillation of peak summer flavors.
And so, I took another look at the O’Keeffe recipes, now viewing them through the all-important prism of her abundant garden, a verdant oasis in the parched desert surrounding the tiny tumbledown town of Abiquiu. The fruit, the vegetables and the herbs, home grown and presumably full of deliciousness, suddenly brought the seemingly moribund recipes to life. I began to fantasize about the artist’s Watercress Soup (O’Keeffe taught Wood how to forage for “jewel-like” wild cress in nearby streams) and about her Green Beans (actually purple, yellow and green beans) steamed and sprinkled with crushed cardamom seeds.
In short, the garden was the secret weapon in O’Keeffe’s kitchen.
For two years running, I’ve never managed to sign up for the tour of the Abiquiu house and garden, which are otherwise not open to the public. So I was at least happy to discover a live feed from the garden when I made my usual visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
At first glance it didn’t look like much was happening, but then I zeroed in on two rows of tiny green sprouts in what looked like a muddy bed. These, it turns out, were the first test plantings of the season: Chimayo chiles, Scarlet Nantes and Danvers Half Long carrots, Royalty Purple Pod and Tendergreen beans, and a few flowers.
The garden fell into neglect after O’Keeffe’s death in 1986, but in 2014, high school students in nearby Ojo Caliente began a long term restoration project supported by the Botanical Garden and the O’Keeffe Museum, and supervised by Agapita Judy Lopez whose grandfather was O’Keeffe’s gardener. You can read about their activities and see photos of their progress on the blog, O’Keeffe Garden Project, and in this article from John Deere’s Homestead magazine.
The artist, who lived and painted at nearby Ghost Ranch during the summers, bought the house in Abiquiu in 1946 specifically so that she could grow her own fresh, nutritious produce and thereby avoid the 70-mile drive to Santa Fe. She asked Maria Chabot, WPA photographer and close friend, to rebuild the crumbling adobe structure and to plan the garden. Chabot who, incidentally, took the famous photo of O’Keefe perched on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, later told an Albuquerque newspaper, “I never found anything as romantic as this beat-up building, a ruin really. It took six months just to get the pigs out of the house.”
Chabot’s initial garden design included tamarisks, willows and “an abundance of fruit trees.” Later she wrote O’Keeffe to say, “I…planted the last of your fruit trees –nectarine (Persian), an October peach, pie cherry, a French prune, green gage and others—the willow is doing fine.” In the cookbook, Wood recalls that O’Keeffe claimed to have “the best applesauce tree around;” the recipe she favored had nothing more than a touch of cinnamon, and sugar and lemon juice to taste.
At the artist’s instruction, the garden was intensively planted with vegetables and herbs. By the time Wood came to work for her 30 years later, there was a well-established routine. “Early crops were planted in March so that the household could have radishes, lettuce, and spinach in May,” she writes. “Then, seeds for snow peas, chard, kale, carrots, turnips, beets, cucumbers, yellow and green squash, string beans, and corn were sown. Onion sets and garlic were planted next. Seedlings for several varieties of tomatoes, green chile, bell peppers, broccoli, and cabbage were put in last.”
As for the herbs, there was “wiry tarragon, feathery dill, stalky lovage, bushy green and purple basil,” as well as tarragon, parsley, marjoram, sorrel, summer savory, chives and three kinds of mint. Six of the fresh herbs found their way into an Herb Salad Dressing, which included lovage, tarragon, dill, basil and parsley as well as lemon juice, olive and safflower oils, mustard seed, garlic cloves and chives as a garnish. (The same dressing was used as a marinade for the “thick, juicy steak” O’Keeffe ate periodically.) Some were also hung in bunches from the vigas or beams in the pantry, to dry for use during the winter.
Often in the early evening, O’Keeffe and her cook strolled through this “enchanting” oasis, choosing good things to eat for supper. Because there was so much produce from June to September, Wood says that “it was not uncommon to have spinach, tomatoes, or green chiles with breakfast, or to include four or five vegetables in both the noon meal and supper.”
Not surprisingly, the kitchen at Abiquiu was both well-stocked and organized in “near impeccable order.” This photo which appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, shows how pots and pans were arranged by size in easily accessible open shelving along one wall, while dinnerware, including coffee and tea pots, casseroles, and pitchers, were organized by category on an adjacent wall. Every item seems to have its own, well-thought out place, yet there’s enough jumble that you know this was a real working kitchen.
I would love to have been there the day a House Beautiful staffer rearranged O’Keeffe’s possessions for a photo shoot “so meticulously that it no longer looked like the painter’s house. At one point, when the woman was making every curtain pleat perfect, Miss O’Keeffe could not resist saying to her, “You know, you’d make a first-class maid.”
One theme that runs throughout the cookbook is O’Keeffe’s deep interest in healthy eating, in itself a reason for having a garden. Vegetables were steamed or sautéed in vegetable oil, cream is never mentioned, and some recipes call for a spoonful of “soup mix,” a blend of powdered milk, soy, kelp and brewer’s yeast that would have thrilled my health-conscious, vegetarian grandmother. Like a lot of us today, the artist worried about hormones and chemicals in mass-produced milk and often bought goat’s milk from a nearby dairy.
And like my grandmother, she was an early devotee of nutritionist Adelle Davis and of a product created by Gaylord Hauser, a German-born health and beauty guru rumored to be a “special friend” of Greta Garbo. The “herb salt” that appears in so many recipes in this cookbook, was actually Vege-Sal, better known as Spike, a salt substitute that Hauser invented. The original formula included 39 ingredients–among them, lots of herbs and spices, as well as “special high potency non-active nutritional yeast grown on beet molasses and NO ADDED MSG”–though it did actually contain both “earth and sea salts.”
Can I just say that Spike was the bane of my childhood existence, at least at the dinner table? And that it’s probably the reason I am now a sea salt-eating fiend?
Well, no matter. I do want to mention the headnotes that Wood includes for each recipe. Often she recalls a moment in time, or a brief snatch of conversation with O’Keeffe. Taken together, they create a sympathetic portrait of the aging but still demanding artist.
O’Keeffe seems to have taken the inevitable decline of her faculties in stride, continuing to paint into her 90′s despite macular degeneration. Though her failing eyesight was frustrating, it also became an opportunity for a new way of perceiving the world. Looking at a vase of irises on the dinner table, she once told Wood, “You know, the way I see this flower is really quite beautiful–the outside petals I can see and the inside is very soft, barely there. You couldn’t see it the way I do.”
Her life at this stage seemed to have been one of relative contentment and small pleasures. She walked in the garden at Abiquiu or along the red cliffs at Ghost Ranch with her chows, Inca and Jinga. Evenings after dinner were spent reading (or being read to), and listening to Gregorian chants and the early music of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Besides painting, she worked with clay and wrote short essays about her dogs, her dreams and the 45 years she had lived at Abiquiu–”all in her distinctive style, which took great liberty with punctuation and phrasing.”
One evening, Wood mentioned that she had climbed the Pedernal, a flat-topped volcanic mountain visible from Ghost Ranch that is depicted in several of O’Keeffe’s most vivid landscape paintings. The artist responded philosophically: ” I’ve done all right on my other paths of life but this last one—this ancient one—it’s harder to find things to do as good as being on top of a mountain. I like to think of someone tearing around in the mountains.”
O’Keeffe died in 1986 at age 98, and her ashes were scattered from the top of the Pedernal. Wood is now a speech therapist for the elderly. As she says, “I learned that I liked working with older people.”
Coming next: O’Keeffe’s recipe for that delicious fresh corn soup.