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Author Recalls Her Time With O'Keeffe Print-ready version

by Kathaleen  Roberts
Albuquerque Journal
August 17, 2009

Margaret Wood was just 24 years old when Georgia O'Keeffe took her on the culinary adventure of a lifetime.

Fresh out of Nebraska's Hastings College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in art education, Wood met the artist in 1977 through a friend who had worked as O'Keeffe's paid companion.

The artist was 90 at the time and her eyesight was failing. She needed someone to stay with her throughout the night and to prepare simple meals. The job description sometimes included brushing O'Keeffe's long white hair and accompanying her on walks beneath the cliffs of Ghost Ranch or down her sweeping Abiquiu driveway.

"I thought it would be a great adventure," said Wood, now living in Santa Fe, where she works as a speech therapist. "I had visited New Mexico a few months earlier, and I thought was a beautiful, vibrant place."

Wood recounts her five years with the great painter in "A Painter's Kitchen: Recipes From the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe" (Museum of New Mexico Press, $16.95, 2009), the latest paperback edition of a work originally published in 1991.

O'Keeffe took great pride in her healthy lifestyle. Whole wheat flour was always ground fresh with the artist's personal mill. Yogurt was homemade, often from the milk of local goats. Fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables came from O'Keeffe's garden.

"She asked me a few questions, like did I like to cook and what were my interests," Wood said. "Her business manager, Juan Hamilton, came in and said, 'Let's give it a try.' "

Her friend had warned her of O'Keeffe's exactitude; food had to be prepared to her specifications. She cautioned Wood to be patient. Wood lived in nearby Barranco, four miles north of Abiquiu, and worked from 5 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., cooking supper and breakfast. She thought she knew how to cook, but quickly learned otherwise.

"She had very distinct tastes," Wood said. "After three days, she started instructing me."

O'Keeffe's austere aesthetic leaned toward simplicity in food as well as decor—her house remains famous for its whitewashed walls and sparse furnishings.

"She was very particular about every aspect of the way she had her life arranged," Wood said. "I just had to learn to work with things the way she liked it best."

Always the minimalist, O'Keeffe eschewed complicated flavor combinations, preferring seasoning of two or three herbs at most paired with fresh, whole foods. Her favorite meals included lemon chicken, green salads and broiled T-bone. She mixed lettuce leaves long before the appearance of "spring mix" bags in the produce section. Something of a disciple of '70s health guru Adele Davis, she created a "soup mix" of powdered milk, soy flour, kelp and brewer's yeast to add to creamed soups and bread. She plucked wild watercress from local spring beds.

"No Cheetos or Twinkies or Milky Ways," Wood said, laughing.

Wood often read to O'Keeffe from news magazines, The New York Times, and the health magazine Prevention. O'Keeffe also enjoyed a biography of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. After supper, she and Wood listened to classical music, especially Bach and Monteverdi.

O'Keeffe was still working, painting her later abstractions with shadowed gradations of the Washington Monument.

"It was this simple vision of the immense object," Wood said.

O'Keeffe liked to reminisce about her years in New York and about her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, as well as her early years in New Mexico.

"She liked to ask me about my boyfriends," Wood added. "One time, I asked her if I should be married. She said, 'My dear, the law make marriage a very long thing. Can you just be tied in your heart?' "

O'Keeffe sometimes entertained guests. Wood was thrilled when singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell came calling.

"She's also a painter, and she had wanted to visit Georgia O'Keeffe for a long time," Wood said. "She spent about a day and I fixed her a breakfast and a supper. She wore gold eye shadow."

During one dinner party, the chicken emerged undercooked and the cork crumbled inside the wine bottle neck.

"They waited and waited," Wood said. "I ended up straining the wine. After the dinner, I told her what happened, and she thought it was pretty funny."

O'Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98. Wood was in contact with her until two years before her death.

"I would go up to Ghost Ranch, and we'd have a picnic," she said.

Today, many of Woods' clients are elderly; she credits O'Keeffe with being her first experiment with geriatric patients. The artists' simple aesthetic sense still lingers with Wood, as well as her recipes.

"I made the meatloaf a couple weeks ago," she said. "I make the white fruitcake every Christmas."

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