In looping handwriting, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe sketched out a method for making chicken flautas, from rolling up chicken in tortillas to cooking a creamy green chili-spiced sauce.
After about 10 minutes in the oven, they’d be done, just the way she liked them.
“Do you think other people eat as well as we do?” she would often wonder aloud.
For the first time, O’Keeffe’s collection of recipes — a card file containing about 300 items — is going up for auction. Many are penned, or penciled, by the artist. Along with the chicken flautas, she copied out recipes for pecan butterball cookies, fresh applesauce and potato-leek soup, among others.
“There’s a certain pleasure in reading other people’s letters,” said Justin Caldwell, a senior specialist in Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, which is holding the auction. “But this is different. This takes you into her kitchen.”
THE CARD file is just one of more than 100 pieces of artwork and personal effects of O’Keeffe; her husband, Alfred Stieglitz; and the artist Juan Hamilton. The objects are from Hamilton’s personal collection, most of which he inherited from O’Keeffe when she died in 1986 at age 98. Beginning today, the recipes will be on view in advance of the March 5 auction.
“You certainly won’t find ‘open a can of this, open a can of that’ in here,” Caldwell said. “I cataloged a lot of things in the sale, but this was my favorite.”
Few recipe collections have ever been put up for sale, and the team at Sotheby’s settled on $6,000 to $8,000 for the presale estimate.
“This is more like selling a piece of her art,” said Bonnie Slotnick, the owner of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, in New York’s East Village. “It’s almost more personal than her art. It’s something that she might have referred to and handled almost every day.”
Some of O’Keeffe’s recipes are remnants of the baroque thrills of early 20th-century entertaining. An ile flottante — an elaborate dessert made from meringue floating in creme anglaise, a custard — might have been prepared only for guests, Caldwell said. A tomato aspic — one of the first recipes in the alphabetically organized box — is a throwback.
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.
“She was very much ahead of her time in terms of organic gardening and eating well,” said Barbara Buhler Lynes, an expert on O’Keeffe’s life and art. “She was very aware of nutrition.”
O’Keeffe painted elegant and sensual works over her decades-long career. Her abstract forms, Southwestern landscapes and provocative flowers pioneered a new form of American modernism.
She is also a mythic figure in the American imagination, an image she fought to control over the course of her life. As a young artist and muse for Stieglitz’s photography, she was seen as something of a sex symbol. In 1949, after he died, she moved from New York City to New Mexico, arranging her home in Abiquiu in a minimalist style.
The recipe cards offer one glimpse into her effort to curate her surroundings. In addition to her carefully tended garden and meals, O’Keeffe designed many of her own clothes. When photographers came to shoot, she selected her wardrobe.
“It pleased her greatly to have her home, her food, just the way she liked,” said Margaret Wood, who started working for O’Keeffe in 1977, when she was 24 and O’Keeffe was 90.
For O’Keeffe, ingredients mattered. Her eggs came from a local woman. While walking through the garden, the artist would sometimes pick out a specific vegetable that she wanted for dinner. Instead of pesticides, her staff used marigolds or garlic water.
PREPARATION WAS important, too, Wood said. Once a week, O’Keeffe and her staff would make homemade yogurt from goat milk, fresh from a nearby dairy. To dry apricots, they would cut them in half and leave them on window screens in the patio. In the fall, O’Keeffe oversaw the canning and freezing of produce.
“Miss O’Keeffe was so particular,” said Wood, who published a cookbook, “A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe.” “She’d tell me how to stir. She’d tell me, ‘Dig down and don’t scrape.’”
The recipe box is, in some ways, just a breadcrumb. Still, in the recipe cards, some blotched with stray fingerprints or grease splatters, O’Keeffe left traces of her daily effort to maintain Abiquiu as a sanctuary.
Wood expressed hope that the box’s future owner can reanimate these traces. “I hope they use them. She had created a remarkable world. And she’s an inspiration to all of us in actually carrying that out.”