Artistic and Culinary Pioneer
On a recent trip to Santa Fe, I scheduled a visit Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico. O’Keeffe, known as the mother of American modernism, is most renowned for her extraordinary paintings of super-sized erotic flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes.
As I neared the property, I immediately spotted her frequently painted wooden ladder, leaning against a wall, its top rungs extending high above the rooftop.
Stepping into her pristine, uber-organized house, it was apparent that she’d done everything possible to optimize exposure to the breathtaking vistas surrounding the property, even to the point of never hanging any window shades whatsoever. The sparsely furnished residence reflected O’Keeffe’s drive for minimalistic, uncluttered living. A few of her paintings and samples of pottery were scattered throughout the rooms. Naked lightbulbs dangled in most rooms. Let nothing impede the light or the natural sceneries.
And then we entered the kitchen.
The kitchen, as well as the house, had been left exactly as it was when O’Keeffe passed away at the age of 98. Somehow, I’d envisioned the artist’s nutritional program to be as austere as her décor. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Filled with amazement, I stared at countless shelves of perfectly organized cooking tools and a wide array of equipment displayed in impeccable order. I spun around and viewed row of jars filled to the brim with dried herbs. Large freezers and a full assortment of pots, pans, bowls and blenders met my gaze as I studied every nook and cranny in her shiny white cook’s paradise.
Georgia O’Keeffe was not just an artistic pioneer. She was a nutrition maverick, well ahead of her time. In 1997, Margaret Wood, O’Keeffe’s caregiver after the artist turned 90, penned the cookbook A Painter’s Kitchen, which also includes memories of her time at Abiquiu.
The book was filled with culinary tidbits, including O’Keeffe’s having been a regular reader of Prevention magazine, as well as a follower of the clean food advocate Adelle Davis. O’Keeffe was a locavore, consuming only what she grew. A passionate gardener, she grew a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, and herbs all of which she picked and prepped for immediate cooking and storage. Dinner was dictated by “what’s ripe in the garden.”
Strolling through those gardens, I saw pear, apple, and peach trees, interspersed with thick raspberry bushes juxtaposed with basil, lovage, dill and mint. Working side by side, O’Keeffe instructed Wood in her cooking, drying, freezing and canning techniques, which I venture to bet harkened back to O’Keeffe’s upbringing on a Midwestern dairy farm.
Not a vegetarian, she enjoyed occasional organic free-range beef and chicken, and ground whole-wheat flour on her electric wheat berry mill. Alcohol was infrequent, while freshly ground coffee was plentiful. I counted no less than 12 different coffee pots neatly arranged by size. Her choice of snack was as simple and wholesome as her life—homemade yogurt, a wheat germ bar or fresh fruit.
Before the onset of macular degeneration in her later years, O’Keeffe’s pre-sleep ritual was to read cookbooks. Reflecting on the eye-opening new history about this beloved artist, I closed my eyes and imagined her dining on colorful, savory and healthy fare, followed by her love of climbing up the ladder at dusk to sit and view the stars.
After visiting Abiquiu, I drove the 13 miles to Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s other residence. There, I saw the panorama of mountains and valleys that were the subject of some of her most acclaimed artwork. She was obsessed with two in particular. Pedernal, a flat-topped mountain to the south, was such a favorite that she once noted, “It’s my private mountain. God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.”
Now knowing what I do about O’Keeffe’s nutritional leanings, I smiled wide when I discovered that the other chosen mountain was aptly called Kitchen Mesa, a sandstone monolith topped by a red rock chimney.
So, the next time you find yourself wandering through a museum or gallery eyeing with admiration any one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, remember that the tireless hours this master of modernism spent in her studio were supported by a truly holistic lifestyle. For that matter, nature, through her gardens, fueled her every stroke of the paintbrush… of nature.
My favorite from A Painter’s Kitchen:
Makes 1 dozen
- 1 cup unbleached flour
- ¼ cup soy flour
- ¾ cup whole-wheat flour
- 2 Tablespoons brewer’s yeast (optional)
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup safflower oil
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons honey
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped almonds
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped cashews
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans
- ¼ cup sunflower seeds
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan.
- In large mixing bowl, combine the flours, brewer’s yeast (if using), baking powder and salt. In a smaller bowl, beat egg and add oil, honey and milk.
- Add this mixture with nuts and seeds to flour mixture, and mix just until blended.
- Fill muffins cups two-thirds full with batter. Bake in preheated oven 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.
- Serve with butter/oil and/or fruit preserves.