Her Memory Fading, Paula Wolfert Fights Back With Food

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SONOMA, Calif. — 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 American kitchens, wrote nine cookbooks and once possessed a palate the food writer Ruth Reichl declared the best she’d ever encountered.

Ms. 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, Ms. Wolfert went to make an omelet for her husband, the crime novelist William Bayer. She had to ask him how.

The woman who once marched up to the 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 percent of the words she knew have evaporated.

“What am I going to do, cry about it?” Ms. Wolfert said in an interview at her home this month, the slap of her Brooklyn accent still sharp. After all, she points out, her first husband left her in Morocco with two small children and $2,000: “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. Ms. 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 so-called 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 favorite place to chat.

“You can talk for an hour and a half, and it doesn’t cost you a dime!” she said. (The 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.

Ms. Wolfert hasn’t even eaten bread, a true love, in over 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 Ms. Wolfert’s work, which introduced couscous and other classic Mediterranean dishes to generations of cooks. The 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 flavors of Yotam Ottolenghi, who remains a fan. The British chef Fergus Henderson chose her cassoulet as his favorite recipe of all time.

A whole murderers’ row of great American chefs — Thomas Keller, David Kinch, Judy Rodgers — has 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.

Ms. Wolfert started cooking as a young bride, taking classes from the French instructor Dione Lucas, who was famous for her omelets. She became Ms. Lucas’s 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.

Before food television and celebrity chefs, cookbook authors like her were the nation’s gastronomic guides, traveling 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. Ms. 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 Ms. Wolfert’s personal collection, which was deep and specific. A book on the polentas of Venice stamped with Ms. Wolfert’s name is selling for $75.

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

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

But Ms. Wolfert called her and said, “‘O.K., you’re my editor and you need to know I can’t write my way out of a paper bag.’”

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

Ms. 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. Ms. 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 Halperin, who as a young man slept free on Ms. Wolfert’s couch and later published her book “The Food of Morocco” in 2009.

Ms. 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 over $91,000, including $100 from Mr. Halperin. 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 $35 on Amazon and through a website, Unforgettable Paula.

The book begins in a Jewish neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Wolfert’s books never sold well, Ms. 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.

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

Then they moved onto salmon, using Ms. 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.

Ms. Thelin pulled the fillet from the oven, considering how to cut the soft fish into portions. Ms. Wolfert said she should have done so before it was cooked, then took a pair of shears to the fillet. Ms. 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.

Lunch stretched into the afternoon. Ms. Wolfert seemed energized by the company and an opportunity to deliver stories with her favorite 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 Mr. 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.”

Recipes: Oven-Steamed Salmon | Cracked Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Relish | More Dishes From Paula Wolfert