Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie

by Culinary Spelunker / Jun 26, 2017 /
Culinary Spelunker's picture

Ironic, really – it took traveling to Toronto to discover an American original.
 
If I have even an hour to spare when visiting a new-to-me city I seek out an art museum. Modern, when available (despite Toronto’s avant garde feel and population nearing 3 million, their first museum of contemporary art doesn’t open until this fall). While visiting Toronto recently, I made a point to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario, which featured an extensive collection of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works as part of a main exhibit running through the end of July.

At the Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit at Art Gallery of Ontario. From Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie
 
Wanting to avoid the inevitable crowds – even on a weekday visit – I arrived a few minutes before the museum opened and was excited to be one of the first of the day to make my way through the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit.

At the Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit at Art Gallery of Ontario. From Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie
 
Starting with portraits and pictures of the artist by her husband, famed photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, the exhibit charted O’Keeffe’s rise to prominence.
 
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, O’Keeffe seemed to have a very Midwestern sensibility coupled with an aura of grit all her own that came out in her paintings and quotes from the artist featured all around. One of my favorites – “Most people in the city rush around so, they have not time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
 
Indeed, O’Keeffe is best known for her oversized paintings that draw out the tiniest details of flowers. And yet her flower paintings were only a chapter in her journey as an artist. In her later years, O’Keeffe became enchanted with New Mexico, visiting on occasion before moving their permanently in 1949.
 
Sitting in front of one of her larger paintings featuring a bleached animal skull and a warm, Western landscape, I flipped through a book all about her home and times in Abiquiu. For some reason, I was surprised to learn that O’Keeffe became an avid gardener while in New Mexico, insisting on eating foods from her own garden and focusing wherever possible on organic produce.
 
Who knew? O’Keeffe, arguably one of the most important American modernist painters, was a foodie – before the term had even become, well, a term.
 
A Painter’s Kitchen captures anecdotes of O’Keefe’s love of gardening and cooking from Margaret Wood, who cared for the aging artist from 1977 to 1982 (O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98).

A Painter's Kitchen. From Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie
 
Her recipes are basic – focusing on fresh, simply dressed ingredients.
 
When it came to vegetables, Wood noted that in season, they often ate produce with every meal, including breakfast.
 
“Steam cooking was the primary method used for preparing many vegetables. … Miss O’Keeffe and I timed the steaming rate for each vegetable so that flavor and texture were retained. Steamed vegetables were often served with a touch of a butter-and-oil mixture and herb salt.”
 
Herb salt popped up in many of O’Keeffe’s recipes, used to season everything from green beans to kale.
 
Yes, O’Keeffe was eating kale before is became the veggie darling of health-conscious eaters everywhere. I found it intriguing that Wood, who first published the cookbook in 1991, felt that she needed to explain what kale was “a slightly chewy vegetable” and a compelling reason to eat it: “it has a deep, musky flavor and contains a hefty amount of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium.”
 
In keeping with her other recipes, O’Keeffe’s kale involves just a few steps – chopping it into thin strips before steaming, then serving with a butter and oil combination and herb salt.
 
To mimic some of O’Keeffe’s culinary tastes, you can prepare your own herb salt. One of my favorites came from a recreational cooking course from The Seasoned Farmhouse in Columbus, Ohio, where I learned how to make chive blossom salt.
 
Making the salt involves only a few steps – remove the lavender-colored petals and allow to air dry on a baking sheet or other flat surface (this may take up to a week; alternatively, you could place them in an oven set to low heat for several hours). Chop up the chive blossoms and mix with your favorite salt, like Maldon Sea Salt flakes.

Maldon sea salt, used in Georgia O'Keeffe's chive blossom salt. From Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie

Use the Chive Blossom Salt to infuse simple sautéed zucchini, spinach, or asparagus with a mildly sweet, oniony flavor.

Georgia O'Keeffe's chive blossom salt. From Georgia O’Keeffe, Artist and the Original Foodie
 
I’d highly recommend ordering your own copy of A Painter’s Kitchen not so much for the recipes, which tend to be fairly expected and easy, but for the thoughtful stories give a window into O’Keeffe’s unguarded moments.
 
Says Wood in the preface to the recipe for Herb Omelet:
 
“My usual responsibilities in the O’Keeffe household began at 5 p.m. and ended at about 8:30 a.m., and included several weekends. In the morning when I left, Miss O’Keeffe would often say goodbye with a graceful wave of her right hand. ‘Goodbye – luck to you,’ she would say. She sometimes commented, ‘You carry your good times with you. If you don’t make your own good time, you might not have it.’”

 

 

 

Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at MyKidsEatSquid.com.

All photos courtesy and copyright MyKidsEatSquid