Emily Kaiser Thelin | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,256 words)
The following is a Longreads exclusive excerpt from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life, the new book by author Emily Kaiser Thelin about the extraordinary life of culinary legend Paula Wolfert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. Our thanks to Thelin for sharing this story with the Longreads community.
In an impossibly narrow lane in the crowded ancient medina of Marrakech, a motor scooter zipped past, a horned ram bleating between the driver’s legs, bound for sacrifice for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. I jumped to get out of the way and promptly collided with a family headed home for the holiday, a small lamb chewing on weeds while straddling the shoulders of the man. I cinched my coat tighter against the wet, cold December day and pushed on against the crowds.
It was December 2008. I had come to Morocco on an assignment for Food & Wine to profile legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, a longtime contributor to the magazine whom I had edited as a staffer there since 2006. This was the culinary equivalent of a journey through the Arabian dunes with T. E. Lawrence or a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers—the chance to tour the place where a titan of my field first made her name. She and I had met in person only twice before, once at a food conference and then for lunch at her house in Sonoma. She had returned to Morocco because her publisher, HarperCollins, had suggested she update her first book, the 1973 landmark Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.
In Couscous, Paula writes how Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, “occurs on the tenth day of the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar year and commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Every Moroccan tries to get hold of a sheep . . . a kid or, if he is very poor, a fowl. The point is to make a sacrifice and then enjoy it.” As a resident of Morocco in the late 1960s, she purchased and fattened her own live lamb for the holiday and, working from a cookbook published by House & Garden magazine—decades before DIY butchery—taught herself to cut up the carcass. Any odd bits that she’d butchered badly, she chopped to make kefte, delicious Moroccan meatballs.
I had been looking forward to this trip for months, but when I arrived, Paula emailed profuse apologies that she had been delayed and wouldn’t be able to join me until the next day. I wandered the medina alone—for as long as I could stand it. I loved it but felt I might drown in the riptide of rams, goats, carpet sellers, spice merchants, and charcoal smoke. I retreated to the rooftop café of my hotel to sip hot mint tea.
When we met the next morning, the holiday was over. The rams and goats were gone, but the crowds were denser than ever. Paula tucked her bobbed chestnut hair behind her ears, linked her arm in mine, and together we traversed the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s vast central square. Although the square teemed with people, the tension I had felt the day before melted away. She led me first to the best stall for merguez sausages, where men stood working the open-air grills, the sweet scents of paprika, cumin, and grilled lamb infusing the smoke.
“You can tell this stall is good because so many Moroccans have lined up for it,” she observed. To anyone who tried to sell us something we didn’t want, she smiled and sang out, “La, barak Allahu fik!” Even to my untrained ear, Paula’s Arabic sounded surprisingly poor, her consonants blunted by her Brooklyn edge, her vowels as broad as a Texas cowboy’s. But she put feeling into it. Hearing her, sellers burst out laughing and gave us a wide swath. What had she said to them? I wondered, because the day before, nothing I did or said in any language could buy me a minute’s peace.
“It means ‘God will grant you every wish if you leave me alone.’ It’s only used in Morocco,” she revealed with her characteristic mirth. “They can’t believe a Westerner knows it.”
We headed to another stall for mechoui, Marrakech-style roast lamb. She sailed up to the wizened old operator, laid a hand on his arm, and proceeded to pepper him with questions in English, French, and Arabic about how he prepared it. I feared he might be insulted by the examination, but as her questions grew ever more detailed, down to the kind of cumin he used, he burst into a delighted grin.
“You know our food!” he exclaimed, and hugged her.
Paula Wolfert may be the most influential cookbook author you’ve never heard of. It’s a food biography cliché to claim that the subject changed the way we eat—except Paula really did, in ways that have gone overlooked by many people until now. She never had a restaurant. She never had a television show. But over nearly four decades, from 1973 to 2011, she published eight seminal cookbooks, three reissues, and countless articles on the traditional foods of the Mediterranean. Her work had a quiet but incalculable influence on our grocery shelves and on our approach to cooking. She helped popularize foods we now take for granted: the couscous, preserved lemons, and tagines of Morocco; the duck confit and cassoulet of France; and the muhammara (Syrian red pepper-nut spread), sumac, pomegranate molasses, and mild red pepper flakes—Aleppo, Marash, and Urfa—of the Middle East. But more, she legitimized a basic approach to cooking that all good chefs now embrace: a respect and reverence for foods of tradition and place.
When Paula started in the 1970s, she was one of a generation of cookbook authors who worked in the wake of Julia Child’s 1963 Mastering the Art of French Cooking to introduce Americans to yet more authentic international cuisines. She joined women like Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, and Diana Kennedy, who championed genuine Italian, Indian, and Mexican cooking, respectively.
But three qualities put Paula in a class by herself: her curiosity, her rigor, and her vision.
After publishing Couscous in 1973, Paula did not stay long in Morocco—or in any country. Her inquisitiveness kept her moving: to Southwest France, to Spanish Catalonia, to Sicily, to the Middle East. She ultimately circled the Mediterranean many times, helping introduce the very concept of Mediterranean cuisine to the American culinary mainstream. A marketing consultant might have warned her that she was watering down her brand by refusing to stay in one place. But her favorite settings were places of discovery—uncharted territory, overlooked ingredients, whatever everyone else couldn’t see. As she liked to put it, “All my life I’ve been drawn to The Other.”
In her explorations, she showed an unusual ability to bond quickly with women home cooks (and chefs of both genders) all over the Mediterranean, coaxing from them their most cherished recipes and cooking secrets. She included her favorite finds in her books. Though she often finessed them to polish their flavors, she never dumbed them down.
By refusing to apologize for obscure ingredients or complex techniques, she challenged Americans to become better cooks. Her rigor ensured her obscurity; for years, mainstream cooks found her books too challenging. (Some of her most iconic recipes are indeed complicated. Her instructions for cassoulet, first published in Food & Wine magazine in 1978, go on for pages and call for six kinds of pork.)
But her exactitude made her a hero to our most forward-thinking chefs. Julia Child called her “one of the few food writers whose recipes I trust.” Thomas Keller told me that Paula’s “fortitude,” her refusal to dilute a recipe or its history, makes her work “relevant for generations of professional chefs and home cooks.” Alice Waters says Paula’s books altered the menus at Chez Panisse many times, and helped her articulate the idea of treating vegetables as a main dish. Jerusalem-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi describes Paula as having “paved the way to Morocco for so many of us.” Pioneering Italian chef Mario Batali credits her with introducing the very idea of authenticity to an America that had little interest in epicurean traditions. “She’s a lot of fun to have a drink with, too,” he added. Few cookbook authors enjoy the devotion of such vaunted chefs.
She was a visionary who saw where American food trends were going often decades before they occurred. She has a reputation as a free spirit who wrote books according to her whims. But she cannily positioned each one to offer something new. Her scouting put her further and further ahead. Only now have some of her best finds caught on, like foraged greens and Aleppo peppers. In no small part thanks to her, duck confit is currently available at Costco. To paraphrase historian Ron Chernow on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, she was a messenger from a future we now inhabit.
And yet Paula is little known outside an elite circle. As a line cook in the late 1990s, I had never heard of her when a chef who was teaching me how to make a Moroccan carrot salad said she had adapted it from Couscous. When I asked who Paula Wolfert was, she pulled me off of the line and into her office, pushed the book into my hands, and insisted that I read it that night. At home, I stared at the photo of Paula on the back and wondered at her fortitude. Who was this woman who’d had the bravery to master three hundred years of one country’s cooking, to become the first to codify that cuisine in English?
In 2010, I left Food & Wine to move to California with my fiancé, now husband. By then, Paula lived in Sonoma, and as we became closer, I began to interview her for a potential biography. But something strange was going on with her mind.
She was known for her keen memory: At the peak of her career, she could re-create whole recipes from two scribbled lines. She could take one bite of a flatbread in Tunisia and compare the leavening to equivalents in Egypt, Turkey, Israel, or Algeria. In conversation, she could recall names of hundreds of friends she had made in her travels. She had also studied close to a dozen languages in order to converse with cooks she met throughout the Mediterranean. But now, at age seventy-two, she struggled to remember the basics of any of them. When she tried to read in English, she said, words floated on the page. Like everyone else who loved her, I dismissed it as a side effect of aging. Even her doctors told her nothing was wrong. Finally, in 2013, she received a diagnosis of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s.
When she told me, I felt as bleak as I had that first day in Marrakech without her. But characteristically, she bucked me up. “I refuse to feel sorry for myself,” she said. “This illness takes forever, and I’m determined to make it take as long as I can.” She then quoted her beloved grandmother, “You can’t win a war if you’re not willing to fight.”
As her editor at the magazine, I’d learned to parse out our phone calls like Halloween candy. They provided such pleasure, but I knew they could suck up a good part of the day. Before her diagnosis, she all but lived to talk about food but also about love, politics, reality television, life. Now in our calls she filled me in on her strategies for her illness.
In a strange way, dementia is today where food was when Paula began her culinary career: we don’t know what we don’t know, and we might pay dearly for our ignorance. Research into its prevention, treatment, and cure is woefully underfunded when compared with what goes toward conquering other major diseases, such as cancer and AIDS. Yet more and more Americans are succumbing to dementia as the population lives longer.
“More of us will have to ‘come out’ to fight for a cure,” she said. “But too many are afraid.”
Paula’s illness inspired me to act. I sent out a proposal to write her biography to nearly a dozen publishers. A consensus emerged among them: her story was interesting but her time had passed.
So I took a page from Paula’s renegade example and banded together with three gifted food professionals: photographer Eric Wolfinger, book designer Toni Tajima, and author Andrea Nguyen, who served as editor. We assembled a culinary biography to honor Paula’s incredible life and to highlight her contributions to American epicurean history. Thanks to our Kickstarter campaign, more than eleven hundred of her fans and colleagues funded our endeavor. Paula donated her recipes and opened her personal archive, which included articles both by her and about her, plus many letters, faxes, and emails.
Choosing which recipes to include proved much harder. Paula had published upward of a thousand, which had been curated from more than ten thousand dishes she had tasted on the road. How I yearned to include, for example, her romantic éclade de moules from The Cooking of Southwest France, which involves igniting fistfuls of fresh pine shoots in a wide forest clearing, or her fanciful egg omelet with hop shoots from Mediterranean Grains and Greens, though I’ve never seen a hop shoot in my life.
Ultimately, I followed Paula’s criteria, which she expressed eloquently and practically in her fourth book, Paula Wolfert’s World of Food: “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.”
Excerpted from the book Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life. Copyright © 2017 Emily Kaiser Thelin.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer, editor, and former restaurant cook. A two-time finalist for James Beard awards, and a former editor at Food & Wine, her work has also appeared in Oprah, Dwell, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. For five years during and after college Emily worked as a professional chef: as a prep cook in London, a private chef in France, and a line cook in Washington, D.C. She currently works for the meal kit delivery service, Sun Basket, and lives in Berkeley with her husband and daughter.