Paula Wolfert is the author of eight classic cookbooks, including Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, The Cooking of Southwest France and five books on Mediterranean cuisine, one of which is the much-praised Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. She has won the Julia Child Award three times, the James Beard Award five times, the M. F. K. Fisher Award, the Tastemaker Award and has been a finalist for the British Andre Simon Award. Wolfert was recently diagnosed with dementia, which led author Emily Kaiser Thelin to document her remarkable story and recipes in her new book, Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer and editor with a focus on food, drink, travel and design, born and raised in Washington, DC, and currently based in Berkeley. A two-time finalist for James Beard Awards, from 2006 to 2010 she was a food editor at Food & Wine. In 2007, she co-authored The Harney and Sons Guide to Tea with Michael Harney, published by Penguin Press. Her work has appeared in the Best Food Writing series, Oprah, Dwell, Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. She also worked as a professional chef in various capacities for five years during and after college. Visit her at her website and follow her on Twitter.
Jewish Food Experience®: What inspired you to write about Paula Wolfert?
Emily Kaiser Thelin: In 2006 I had the good fortune to be assigned to be Paula’s editor at Food & Wine magazine, where she was a longtime contributor to their Master Cook column. Then I profiled her for the magazine, and we traveled together to Marrakech. Our first day, while she took me around the souks (markets), she shared the unlikely stories behind her storied career. I had a strong feeling that someone needed to tell her story. She has contributed so much to the way we eat, she helped radically transform our very attitudes about food and yet the details of her exceptional life are so little known, even to those who admire her the most. I was particularly struck by the stark contrast between her major accomplishments and the bootstrapped way she built her career and continually re-invented herself—her many reasons to have every confidence, yet her deep-seated fears.
JFE®: What intrigues you most about Paula’s process for researching and creating recipes?
EKT: It’s hard to pinpoint one thing; her process was such an amalgamation. There’s the tireless research—the relentless testing and retesting of the recipes, and the preparatory work. Before she traveled to any country, she studied the language, the dialect, in order to converse and to read books on the cuisine in the local tongue. In this way, she picked up Sicilian, Georgian, Greek—eight languages total—most with their own alphabets. Once there, she developed remarkable skills for sniffing out the best cooks. It’s not at all the romantic meeting of the minds you might imagine. When she meets a good cook, she interrogates them like they’re crime suspects. “What kind of almonds did you use here?! Spanish?!” But where you might expect this quizzing would put them on the defensive, it draws them in. They see she’s as passionate about getting it right as they are. Then as she reveals her warmth and humor, and they become instant lifelong friends. I witnessed this in Marrakech. When she connects with a good cook, they form an almost holy bond. The recipe becomes secondary to that connection.
JFE®: What did you learn about Paula while working with her on Unforgettable?
EKT: What stood out was watching her cope with dementia. At her height as a food writer, she could be fiercely competitive, and sometimes irrationally insecure. Dementia brought her unexpected peace. When I pointed out how she seemed less anxious since her diagnosis, she replied, “Well, of course—now I have something real to worry about.” In deeply surprising ways, it forced her to accept herself.
JFE®: In many cultures, especially Jewish culture, food is such a big part of memories. What happens when memory is compromised?
EKT: Food memories we form as children are often lodged so deeply in our minds, they can stay with us even through the fog of dementia. Alzheimer’s is said to attack the brain in the reverse order of the brain’s development through childhood and early adulthood, so early food memories can be some of the last to go. The younger she was when she experienced certain foods, the more clearly Paula could recall them. Not always; she could recall the cheesecake at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay in detail, but the first months we worked on the book, she insisted she had no recollection of her grandmother’s ajvar, or Balkan eggplant relish, beyond the fact that it was one of the first truly good foods she ever ate. But then she stumbled upon a recipe that reminded her of it, and when I saw her cook it, it was eerie and magical—it was evident her hands remembered the steps to make it, though her mind had forgotten them. This happened with a handful of dishes; it was like watching her travel back in time, the food as time machine.
JFE®: Tell me about the process of writing this book. What were some challenges?
EKT: The hardest challenge was keeping the chronology straight. Never mind dementia, healthy brains can play tricks on us, especially as we age. In an effect called telescoping, events from long ago can feel like they occurred more recently, and recent events can feel more distant. Particularly discussing her earliest years, where she had few records, Paula could very easily confuse herself—and me—about what happened when. Thankfully, starting with her first recipes, she left a paper trail that helped us keep the timeline straight.
JFE®: Growing up in DC, what was a memorable Jewish food experience for you?
EKT: I actually think my family’s struggles to cook a decent Chanukah latke are partly what drove me into a career in food. I was raised in a mixed household, but that’s no excuse—we could never get them right. Even when I was very young, I knew in my heart they should be crisp and tender. Despite all our efforts, and the chance to practice every year, ours came out reliably leaden and soggy. We enjoyed the ritual anyways, and heaps of sour cream and applesauce covered all our sins. It wasn’t until I got my first restaurant job that a chef taught me how to make a good one—how to blend a decent mixture that wasn’t too damp, how to heat the pan and get the oil good and hot before adding the latkes, how to cook them without moving and drain them on truly dry paper towels, not greasy ones. It was richly satisfying to savor those crisp, tender results. But it also taught me that food needn’t be technically perfect to be satisfying. If you have to choose, a loving gathering wins out over perfectly crisp latkes. But ideally you get both.