Waking up to the 1970s
Starting with the recipes of Georgia O’Keeffe
In February 2020, I came across an article in the New York Times food section called “Own the Recipes of Georgia O’Keeffe.” The auction house Sotheby’s had acquired the personal collection of the artist Georgia O'Keeffe—encompassing not only paintings and sculptures but clothes, art supplies, and other items, including her recipe box. The article shared that the full collection would be on display in a one-week exhibition leading up to the auction.
The exhibit seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to understand a little-known but clearly carefully considered part of O’Keeffe’s life, so I decided to make the hour-long subway trip to the Upper East Side to check it out. (I had no idea how once-in-a-lifetime this was—the visit was one of the last rides I would take to Manhattan before the city shut down because of the pandemic.)
Georgia O’Keeffe was born in the late 1880s, so I was expecting some serious culinary relics to be in that recipe box. By the time she permanently settled in Abiquiu, New Mexico on the estate that would become her home and studio, it was 1949 and O’Keeffe was in her 60s. I’m sure that when most of us imagine what this woman would be cooking, we’re thinking of something we’ve seen out of vintage ads—canned soups, boxed cake mixes, margarine. Or maybe, given O’Keeffe’s fame and wealth, the expectation is more like something out of the @70sdinnerparty Instagram account—bizarre combinations of foods that are more focused on aesthetics than flavor. But the Times article explained,
Some of O’Keeffe’s recipes are remnants of the baroque thrills of early-20th-century entertaining...But florid dishes are the exceptions. Instead, many call for fresh produce, fresh herbs and simple preparation. There are soups, vegetables and easy chicken recipes. O’Keeffe kept an expansive garden at her home in Abiquiu, N.M., about 50 miles north of Santa Fe, growing much of her own food.
The visit to see the collection did not disappoint. I had expected to walk through some galleries and see a few recipes on display behind glass. Instead, after traversing said galleries, I found a small room with her personal papers in cases. Another person who I imagined to be fabulously wealthy was browsing the recipe box, which had been removed from the case for him to explore. When it was my turn, I learned that I could peruse the box for as long as I wanted, without gloves, and take photos the recipes under the passive supervision of a uniformed Sotheby’s employee. (As a friend who had worked for an auction house later pointed out to me, it makes sense that there’s a certain amount of freedom to explore at these exhibits because you should be able to fully assess something if you’re hoping to buy it!)
Obviously, I took a lot of photos—and everything I recorded was recipes I could imagine myself making. Pecan butterball cookies; roasted chicken; strawberries macerated in red wine; leek and potato soup; lightly scrambled eggs topped with grated cheese; all in O’Keeffe’s looping script, clipped from a newspaper, or written by a friend or assistant. There were Mexican-influenced recipes, like a carne de alla with squash blossoms and coriander leaves; and glamorous desserts like creme brulée and candied mint leaves.
All in all, her home cooking was surprisingly simple yet elegant—easily reminiscent of the kind of food I knew Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse was popularizing in California when O’Keeffe was coming to the end of her life. After this revelation, I ordered a copy of A Painter’s Kitchen, a collection of recipes compiled by O’Keeffe’s personal chef who began working for her in the late 1970s. The book’s recipes were even more elemental than what I encountered at Sotheby’s: the first recipe is a simple salad of lettuce and sorrel with an herb dressing; and many of the vegetable preparations had three ingredients at most.
This made me take a second look at some of the cookbooks I had collected from the ‘70s, and want to acquire more. I had the Moosewood Cookbook of course, but also some more obscure titles. Years ago, a friend picked up a bizarre little tome called The Complete Fruit Cookbook for me at a used bookstore in San Francisco. Published in 1972, the book claims to feature a recipe for every fruit available in the United States at the time and contains beautiful line drawings not only of fruits but, for some reason, nudes. Another friend, who was the last to move out of a house in New Haven that had been rented by Yale School of Forestry grad students for many years, brought me a few books that had been left behind there. As a result, I got my hands on Tassajara Cooking, a vegetarian manual penned by the young white head cook of a Buddhist monastery in Northern California with a gentle and encouraging tone to guide the reader learning their way around a cutting board for the first time.
Just this little collection was enough to show me that during a time we associate with the peak of processed foods and misguided dinner party delicacies, there were a lot of people who were thinking about cooking in a different way. They were interested in all that fresh produce could do—and their writing helped vegetarianism and environmentally-minded foodways establish a foothold in the United States.
This summer, The Kitchen Review of Books will be focused on this niche I’ve dug myself into: the cookbooks of the 1970s counterculture. We’ll start with a crash course in the political context that guided these cooks and their communities they came out of, and the food rules they adhered to. Then we’ll spend some quality time with some of my favorites of the genre, like the cookbook of a Vermont restaurant that was a contemporary of Moosewood and whose staff were given time off to attend protests; a dinner party cookbook that may have been the vegetarian Nothing Fancy of its time; and more. We’ll explore how home cooks and chefs in the 70s handled the same concerns we have today about pesticides, additives, and the environmental impacts of the food system. And we might pick up clues to how we got to the “vote with your fork” slacktivist food justice ideology we still find ourselves mired in.
I’m hoping you’ll find this weird little time warp as fascinating as I do. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn about a cookbook you want to buy, too?
For more photos of O’Keeffe’s recipes, you can check out my album here.
Next issue: If this 1970s series was a book, this issue would be the preface and the next issue would be the intro. I’ll be discussing Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat to set up the context for all that we’ll see in the cookbooks to come.
P.S. Yale University ended up buying O’Keeffe’s recipes shortly before the open auction at an undisclosed price. If you want to learn more about them, here is a podcast episode interviewing the Yale archivist who acquired the collection. You need Stitcher to listen unfortunately, but there’s a transcript hidden at the bottom of the page.