In the June 1972 issue of American Vogue, food columnist Maxime de La Falaise introduced readers to the Native American recipes of Yeffe Kimball, a half-Osage, half-English artist. It was hard not to fall under the spell of Kimball’s romantic aura, from her thickly woven braids to her fringed tribal dresses to her admired paintings, which melded 20th-century modernism with Native American motifs in a manner that won the admiration of collectors and curators. In fact in the 1960s and 1970s few Native Americans were as well known as Yeffe Kimball or as respected. Trouble was, she wasn’t Osage.
Kimball, who died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1978, was an artist, yes, and a fine one. The praise she garnered was entirely deserved. Unfortunately she didn’t have one iota of Native American blood. Her name, Yeffe, didn’t mean Wandering Star; her father wasn’t Other Star Good Man, an Osage; she wasn’t born in 1914 nor was she a native of Oklahoma. In actuality Yeffe Kimball was Effie Y. Goodman, born in 1906, one of the nine children of Missouri farmer Oather Alvis Goodman and his spouse, Martha Clementine Smith—who was from Kansas not England. She attended East Central College in Ada, Oklahoma, and the University of Oklahoma at Norman before studying at the Art Students’ League in New York City and, reportedly, with Fernand Léger in Paris. Somewhere along the way Effie Goodman wed and shed two of three husbands, keeping the surname of the first, Campbell, though she modified it into Kimball, just as she created a new first name by rearranging the letters of the one written on her birth certificate.
Though the reasons for Kimball’s buckskin masquerade remain unclear, she claimed to be Osage from the mid 1940s until her death, and this story seemed to have fooled many who came into contact with her. A museum director who knew the truth, however, wrote in a private letter to a friend that one of Kimball’s sisters was mortified by the deception. Another source I talked with mentioned Kimball’s siblings distanced themselves from her as a result of this inexplicable racial transformation. While one might legitimately question Kimball’s adoption of Osage identity—which she publicly displayed as a contestant on the American game show “Dotto” in the 1950s, wearing tribal dress and declaring she understood Indian sign language—she did an enormous amount of good in her eventful life. Kimball became an expert on the customs of Southwestern tribes, championed Native American rights in Washington, D. C., and encouraged young Indian artists to deepen their work by exploring modern art. For many years Kimball also collected tribal recipes, gathering more than 100 into The Art of American Indian Cooking (Doubleday, 1971), which she wrote with Jean Anderson of The Ladies’ Home Journal.
“I had to eat every goddamn one of those recipes,” Kimball’s third husband and widower, atomic scientist Harvey L. Slatin, now in his early 90s, laughingly told me last week in a telephone interview. His wife and her collaborator “made the same dishes over and over again” as they tested the recipes in the Slatins’ kitchen. “I was the guinea pig and ate bear meat and buffalo! I put on an awful lot of weight but I enjoyed it very much.” As for his late wife’s cultural subterfuge, Slatin observed, “I was very much in love with that woman, so if she had told me she was a Martian, I would have believed her. She actually looked very Indian but she wasn’t.”
Few scholars have been as generous as Slatin when the subject turns to Kimball. At least one formerly enamored curator now flatly dismisses her as “a fraud.” The artist’s striking paintings are no longer exhibited by the institutions that collected them, including the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma, which, according to her husband, reportedly owns the lion’s share of Kimball’s works as well as what remains of her personal papers. A few spunky writers are digging into Kimball’s past though in the hopes of producing biographies that will bring this fascinating but perplexing woman back into the public eye. Most exciting of all, one young researcher I spoke dreams of curating a Yeffe Kimball exhibition in the halls of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The show would celebrate the artist’s work while addressing the thorny issue of cultural identity—are you the sum total of your DNA or, like Kimball, are you the person you want to be?
Until those reappraisals are fulfilled one can taste Kimball’s legacy in the following recipe from The Art of American Indian Cooking, a smoky, spicy Zuni standard we served last week when friends came to visit. It was fantastic. By the end of the evening there was not a single leftover. Wherever you are, Yeffe Kimball, you have my culinary thanks.
LAMB AND GREEN CHILI STEW
SOURCE: Maxime de La Falaise, “Food in Vogue” (Doubleday, 1980)
3 pounds boned lamb, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cooking oil [or olive oil]
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 dried juniper berries, crushed
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
5-1/2 cups canned hominy, with its liquid
1 medium-sized dried chili pepper, crushed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
6 green chilies, quartered (include some seeds for heat)
1 quart water
Dust the lamb with flour, brown in the oil in a large, heavy pot. Stir in the black pepper and juniper berries. Remove the meat; drain. Cook the onions in the same pot until golden; return the meat. Add the remaining ingredients, cover; simmer 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.