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The Deepest Roots

Georgia O'Keeffe's Garden

View down the rows of a large vegetable garden.
The garden at Georgia O'Keeffe's home in Abequiu, New Meixico, one of the main reasons she purchased the property.

 

The leaves are changing, and we are experiencing an early, dry fall in the Northwest. September flew by before I could blink.

 

But in August, we visited New Mexico and the its sage-colored hills, rust-red arroyos, and the famous choice, "red or green?" referring to one's choice of chile on your food.

 

One place we visited was the painter Georgia O'Keeffe's home in the town of Abiquiu, about forty-five minutes northwest of Santa Fe. She had been looking for a property to buy, and when she saw this place, she was determined to own it.

 

Besides the amazing sky and wide open spaces, O'Keeffe was searching for a place to grow her own food. I don't think it was a fad or even widely thought about at the time, but it was one more thing of importance to the often-inscrutable artist. I am looking at the cover of a book called A Painter's Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe, by Margaret Wood, one of the many people who worked for O'Keeffe in her later days. In the photo, O'Keeffe is stirring a pot with her right hand, her left cocked at her waist, an almost-smile playing across her lips, as if to say, "Oh, go ahead, show me doing something unglamorous!"

 

When O'Keeffe first saw it, the land was owned by the Catholic Church; for generations before that it belonged to the Lopez family. The house was in ruins, but there was still a garden under cultivation. The people of Abiquiu kept up the vegetable garden, but just as important, they exercised the water rights associated with it. New Mexico water rights are governed by a strict system of acequias that might have been in place before the Spaniards showed up, as evidenced by the ancient trincheras still visible across much of the Southwest.

 

It took O'Keeffe ten years to convince the Church to sell to her, and there are many stories associated with the restoration of the house and property. At that time, she owned the property at Ghost Ranch, just up the road, but had to travel seventy miles into Santa Fe to buy fresh vegetables. Looking east and south from its perch above the highway, one recognizes the vistas that show up in the strong lines of her paintings, as well as the colors that signal we could not be anyplace other than New Mexico.

 

Wisely, O'Keeffe retained the family of the original owners to continue caring for the garden, sort of like Pharoah hiring Moses' mother to care for the infant found floating in a basket. Much of the produce is dried, canned, or frozen for later consumption, and I suspect, still sustains much of the town of Abequiu. The family continues to tend it today under the auspices of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum that now owns and manages the property.

 

The cookbook contains recipes that my mother-in-law from Denver would have recognized as somewhat Midwestern – watercress salad, eggs Florentine, orange gelatin. But it shows some Southwest influence like verdolaga (purslane), fried flowers, and yes, red and green enchilada sauce. There are bread recipes in the cookbook, but also recipes for biscochitos and sopapillas, both New Mexican specialties. O'Keeffe kept a grain mill and her cooks ground the grain for her breads. Wood describes poring over issues of Prevention, a healthy lifestyle magazine, with O'Keeffe, who was especially fond of buckwheat for its high protein and fiber content. While the photo shows O'Keeffe preparing a stew, I'm pretty sure she left most of the cooking to others.

 

O'Keeffe entertained frequently in the small but wonderful house, with its deep-set doors and thick walls. One room still has a "shepherd's bed," an adobe bench under which a fire could be built to keep newborn lambs warm. Stones she collected are everywhere. One of the people on the tour with us, a man in his late seventies or early eighties, recalled playing in the garden as a child, under the ancient blackberry tree and along the flagstone pathways, when his parents visited O'Keeffe. In her later years, O'Keeffe kept disagreeable chow chows as guardians and companions, prickly like O'Keeffe.

 

Walking through the house, one can just imagine O'Keeffe in a black dress and rebozo regaling her eastern friends with stories about local life as a storm sweeps dramatically across the landscape. They are nibbling at a plate of biscochitos and drinking tequila from tiny ceramic cups made especially for O'Keeffe. You know she is just waiting for everyone to go back to Santa Fe so she can greet the night by herself and sketch out charcoal drafts for another day of painting. Such is the romance of place.

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