Good food is memory: the extraordinary Paula Wolfert

Good food is memory: the extraordinary Paula Wolfert

It’s no secret that I am an avid cookbook collector, and that I am deeply beholden to the exceptional cooks that have gone before me. Back in the day before food television was busy creating celebrity chefs, there were a group of amazing women cookbook authors, scholarly ambassadors, who brought food from afar to our shores. Julia Child introduced us to French cuisine, Alice Waters brought us fresh, farm-to-table cooking, and Paula Wolfert shared Mediterranean cuisine. She wrote 6 cookbooks on the topic, including her landmark Mediterranean Cooking (1994), the standout classic Mediterranean Grains and Greens (1998), and her latest, The Food of Morocco (2011), a GORGEOUS cookbook and the absolute bible about this region for Western cooks. 

These women traveled the world to get their ideas and influences, and then traveled the country sharing them with us. Today, with technology, publishers don’t send us cookbook authors out on the road. But these women were out there touring and meeting with audiences, directly influencing SO many chefs and cooks in their day. I had the good fortune of taking a class with Paula Wolfert on Mediterranean Comfort Food in 2002 in Sonoma where she lives, and got to see her in action, which was marvelous. 

Kim Severson, writing recently in The New York Times, says of her, “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.’ “ 

The news that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013 had special poignancy for me and so many of her fans. 

But in typically indomitable Paula fashion, she wasn’t going to fade from view while her illness was hushed up! She wanted to give voice to it, and to share how she has gone into her kitchen and is using food as medicine. She reflects on cooking to cope with Alzheimer’s in this PBS Newshour interview

Last year, I got a note from my editor, with a link to a kickstarter campaign from Emily Kaiser Thelin, Paula’s editor at Food and Wine Magazine since 2006, who planned to write a biography of Paula with recipes, curating the BEST of her while she’s still alive. Nearly a dozen book publishers rejected the project, despite Paula’s preeminence and Emily’s superb reputation as one of the best food writers in the country. This is like, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This project is a no brainer! 

Emily started a crowdfunding campaign and through a groundswell of support, quickly made the requisite numbers. 

Superb food photographer Eric Wolfinger donated his photos. Talented cookbook pros, including highly respected Ten Speed Press author Andrea Nguyen (her latest is the fabulous The Pho Cookbook), served as editor,  while veteran book designer Toni Tajima served as art director on the project. The way the project unfolded was so touching. The thing that moves me the most is that even though Paula has Alzheimer’s, she still has something incredible and very important to contribute. Emily saw the vision, and the need to make sure Paula’s voice was heard at this fragile time of life; and a younger generation of cooks and readers were totally committed to honoring this woman and her many contributions to the culinary cannon. 

The result? Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life. Of course it’s sensational! Her story is amazing, and she IS unforgettable! Basically she got stranded in Morocco by her crazy first beatnik husband, with 2 kids, which became the start of her love affair with Mediterranean food. She’s an off the charts colorful, native New Yorker, and not much has kept her down. 

I love this classic Paula Wolfert quote from the book:

“When I develop recipes I always look for ways to create what I call the big taste… food that is deeply satisfying, and that appeals to all the senses. I like dishes that leave their flavor with me, whose tastes and aromas I will never forget.”  — Paula Wolfert

As she has also said, “Good food is memory.” You won’t want to miss this exquisite and exhilarating biography plus cookbook!

Read more about Paula in these two excellent recent New York Times articles:

Sam Sifton, Paula Wolfert’s World
Kim Severson, Her Memory Fading, Paula Wolfert Fights Back With Food 

Don’t you just want to DIVE into this pan? (Thanks to brilliant photographer Eric Wolfiinger). Nobody does it like Paula! So her Mint and Egg Salad is one of a kind, with bright, slivered mint leaves and a light dressing of olive oil and lemon. I’m grateful to Paula and Emily for permission to share it with you. Enjoy… and remember!