Her memory fading, Paula Wolfert fights back with food

Paula Wolfert in the kitchen at her home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Paula Wolfert in the kitchen at her home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times

SONOMA (California), March 24 — The first thing Paula Wolfert wants to make a guest is coffee blended with butter from grass-fed cows and something called brain octane oil. She waves a greasy plastic bottle of the oil around her jumble of a kitchen like a preacher who has taken up a serpent.

Never mind that this is the woman who introduced tagines, Aleppo pepper and cassoulet to US kitchens, wrote nine cookbooks and once possessed a palate that food writer Ruth Reichl declared the best she’d ever encountered.

Wolfert, 78, has dementia. She can’t cook much, even if she wanted to. Which, by the way, she doesn’t.

She learned she probably had Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, but she suspected something wasn’t right long before. Words on a page sometimes made no sense. Complex questions started to baffle her. Since she has always been an audacious and kinetic conversationalist with a touch of hypochondria, friends didn’t notice anything was wrong. Doctors spoke of “senior moments.”

But she knew. One day, Wolfert went to make an omelet for her husband, crime novelist William Bayer. She had to ask him how.

Paula Wolfert, (centre), watches as Emily Kaiser Thelin cuts into baked salmon to check if it needs more time in the oven, at Wolfert's home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Paula Wolfert, (centre), watches as Emily Kaiser Thelin cuts into baked salmon to check if it needs more time in the oven, at Wolfert's home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The woman who once marched up to French chef Jean-Louis Palladin and told him a dish didn’t have enough salt can no longer taste the difference between a walnut and a pecan, or smell whether the mushrooms are burning. The list of eight languages she once understood has been reduced to English. Maybe 40 per cent of the words she knew have evaporated.

“What am I going to do, cry about it?” Wolfert said in an interview at her home this month, the slap of her Brooklyn, New York, accent still sharp. After all, she points out, her first husband left her in Morocco with two small children and US$2,000 (RM8,857): “I cried for 20 minutes and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to do any good.'“

Still, her insatiable drive — which took her to live with the Beat Generation’s most notable characters in Tangier in 1959 and then propelled her like a pushy anthropologist into countless kitchens around the world — seems to be working just fine. Wolfert has been collaborating with a writer on a biography to be published in April. Instead of seeking out recipes, she is eating to save her mind.

Thus, the bulletproof coffee she makes every morning and the squares of dark chocolate she eats after lunch, in the belief they will bolster her brainpower. In between, she eats a carbohydrate-free diet built on salmon, berries and greens, along with extracts of turmeric, cinnamon and eggplant.

The diet draws on an amalgam of theories she has culled from deep internet research, her doctors, the other dementia patients she meets with every week and long conversations with friends and experts on FaceTime, her favourite place to chat.

“You can talk for an hour and a half, and it doesn’t cost you a dime!” she said. (Southern food writer James Villas, her good friend, lovingly calls her La Bouche — the Mouth.)

She has happily lost 20 pounds. Friends say she looks remarkably good, younger even. “Turning back the clock, turning back the clock,” she chants cheerfully.

Wolfert hasn’t even eaten bread, a true love, in more than a year. “I don’t remember it, but I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t want to be a zombie.”

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Wolfert’s work, which introduced couscous and other classic Mediterranean dishes to generations of cooks. New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called her “one of the leading lights in contemporary gastronomy.” She made Alice Waters fall in love with chicken cooked with preserved lemons and olives in a tagine, and primed America for the Middle Eastern flavours of Yotam Ottolenghi, who remains a fan. British chef Fergus Henderson chose her cassoulet as his favourite recipe of all time.

A whole murderers’ row of great US chefs — Thomas Keller, David Kinch, Judy Rodgers — said how much her work mattered. “I have always treasured and loved the vigor of her passionate and intellectual approach to authenticity,” Mario Batali said.

She started cooking as a young bride, taking classes from French instructor Dione Lucas, who was famous for her omelets. Wolfert became Lucas’ assistant, then picked up some cooking jobs arranged for her by James Beard.

Discovering she was a complete failure as a line cook, she agreed to move to Morocco with her first husband. There, surrounded by expat writers and musicians stuck in their web of drug-taking and drama, she found refuge in the souks of Tangier and planted the seeds for what would eventually become Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, which she published in 1973.

She branched out to southwestern France, Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, writing books at a time when America was waking up to the culinary treasures beyond its borders. The concept of culinary Columbusing had yet to surface, and the quest for authenticity in food hadn’t become sport.

A notebook of Paula Wolfert's field notes from one of her many travels, at her home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A notebook of Paula Wolfert's field notes from one of her many travels, at her home in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Before food television and celebrity chefs, cookbook authors like her were the nation’s gastronomic guides, travelling the cooking-school circuit like celebrities.

“I have come to call the people of that era ‘the Julia Child’ of whatever cuisine,” said Celia Sack, who owns Omnivore Books in San Francisco. Sack buys the cookbook collections of the great cooking teachers of the 1970s and ‘80s, and sells them to younger cooks.

She recently put up for sale some cookbooks from Wolfert’s personal collection, which was deep and specific. A book on the polentas of Venice stamped with Wolfert’s name is selling for US$75.

Next month, a book about Wolfert will debut with an origin story as unconventional as she is. Unforgettable: The Bold Flavours of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life is a biography interwoven with about 50 recipes. The author is Emily Kaiser Thelin, Wolfert’s former editor at Food and Wine, who has become as much a daughter as a biographer.

In 2006, Thelin inherited the magazine’s Master Cook column, which included contributions from Jacques Pépin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “I always dealt with their assistants,” Thelin said.

But Wolfert called her and said, “'OK, you’re my editor and you need to know I can’t write my way out of a paper bag.'“

In 2008, Thelin traveled to Morocco to write about Wolfert for the magazine. Young and intimidated, Thelin watched her in action. She likens the adventure to “a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers.”

Thelin left the magazine in 2010 and moved from New York to Northern California. The two women’s friendship deepened, laced with long conversations about food, reality TV and politics. Thelin was toying with the idea of a biography. Then came the diagnosis. The biography seemed more important than ever.

The proposal was praised but rejected by nearly a dozen editors, including Dan Halpern, who as a young man slept free on Wolfert’s couch and later published her book The Food of Morocco in 2009.

Wolfert, it seemed, was yesterday’s news.

Eric Wolfinger, who is essentially the Annie Leibovitz of food photography, suggested a Kickstarter campaign and offered to shoot the pictures. It quickly raised more than US$91,000, including US$100 from Halpern. Andrea Nguyen, the noted Vietnamese cookbook author, signed on to edit. Toni Tajima agreed to design it. On April 4, it goes on sale for US$35 on Amazon and through a website, Unforgettable Paula.

The book begins in a Jewish neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where Wolfert grew up with vision problems and a dieting mother who fed her cottage cheese, melon and lettuce, and didn’t like her very much. It ends with tips for using food to connect with someone suffering from dementia, like cooking recipes together that have a deeper, personal meaning or understanding that the hands of many older cooks may remember what to do when their minds cannot.

The loving profile sometimes glosses over comments from critics (which Wolfert still has quite a sharp memory for). More than a few editors and cooks have found her demand for specific ingredients impossible, the way she delivers extensive knowledge of certain cuisines insufferable and her recipes so complex as to be unworkable.

But Thelin, like many, is a true believer. “I feel like every Paula recipe seems to pull the rug out from under you,” she said. “You think it’s not going to work, but if you keep calm and follow the recipe it does.”

Even though many of Wolfert’s books never sold well, Thelin said, they were almost always prescient. “Alice Waters said if Grains and Greens came out today, it would be a runaway best seller,” she said.

Wolfert still has lessons to teach her acolyte. On a recent Saturday, Thelin spent the morning carefully blanching vegetables that would be seasoned with pancetta in a recipe Wolfert adapted from Michel Bras, a French chef whom Wolfert wrote about in 1987.

Then they moved onto salmon, using Wolfert’s master recipe, which calls for steaming the fish over a pan of hot water set in a roughly 250-degree oven. The fish cooks on a very thin pan until it’s tender but juicy and still bright.

Thelin pulled the fillet from the oven, considering how to cut the soft fish into portions. Wolfert said she should have done so before it was cooked, then took a pair of shears to the fillet. Thelin was surprised by how tidy the technique was. She never would have thought to use scissors.

“You’re still teaching me things,” she said.

Baked salmon, prepared for lunch, at the home of Paula Wolfert in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Baked salmon, prepared for lunch, at the home of Paula Wolfert in Sonoma, California. ― Picture by Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Lunch stretched into the afternoon. Wolfert seemed energised by the company and an opportunity to deliver stories with her favourite polished punch lines. And because it’s what food writers do, she promoted a new book she had discovered: The Spice Companion, by Lior Lev Sercarz. Spices have given her a new culinary world to explore, at least on paper.

She was so enamored of the book that she called Sercarz’s New York spice store, La Boite, to order a few of his blends to sprinkle on the salmon at lunch.

Most of them she couldn’t taste, but one, a blend called cancale, stopped her. Salty and with a strong whiff of fennel and orange, it somehow broke through. She could taste it.

“You know what it is?” she said. “It reminds me of Morocco.”

Recipe: Oven-Steamed Salmon

Yield: 1 to 8 servings, depending on the quantity cooked

Total time: About 30 minutes

Center-cut salmon fillets, preferably wild-caught Alaskan king or sockeye, 1-inch thick and of any size from 5 ounces to 2 1/2 pounds

Olive oil, for greasing

Flaky sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Snipped fresh chives, for garnish (optional)

1. Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and a second rack in the upper third. Heat the oven to between 225 and 275 degrees. Grease a thin sheet pan with olive oil.

2. Carefully place a frying pan of just-boiled water on the lower oven rack. Arrange the salmon on the prepared sheet pan, season generously with salt and pepper, and place on the upper oven rack. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 110 degrees for rare, 115 degrees for medium-rare, or 125 degrees for medium. This should take 10 to 12 minutes for 5-ounce fillets or 20 to 25 minutes for a 2 1/2-pound fillet. (The color of the salmon will not turn dull, and the texture will be very juicy.)

3. Transfer the salmon to a platter or one or more individual plates and season with more salt and pepper, if desired. Sprinkle with chives, if using, and serve.

Recipe: Cracked Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Relish

Yield: 4 to 6 servings as a meze or side dish

Total time: 15 minutes

8 ounces cracked green olives, pitted, rinsed and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped by hand

2 scallions, white and light green parts, minced

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/8 teaspoon mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash, or more to taste

2 teaspoons pomegranate concentrate or molasses

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen pomegranate seeds

1. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients and stir to mix well. The relish can be served the same day it is made. However, if covered and refrigerated for 1 to 2 days, it will mature and develop peak flavour. Bring to room temperature before serving. ― The New York Times

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