in SONOMA, Calif.
Since her diagnosis earlier this year, Paula Wolfert, 75, swears she has simplified her cooking. “I try to cook something every few days, like practicing a musical instrument,” she says.
It’s a smart plan for someone like her, in the early stages of cognitive impairment, when organization problems can first appear. But Wolfert’s definition of “simple” has never been anyone else’s. Her eight seminal cookbooks on the foods of the Mediterranean are famous — some might say infamous — for their complexity, for challenging us to be better cooks.
Over her four-decade career, she would often test a few recipes a day. Meals for herself and her husband of 30 years, crime novelist Bill Bayer, could get eclectic: duck confit, a dish she popularized in 1983 with “The Cooking of Southwest France”; a Syrian dish spiked with aleppo pepper, a spice she introduced to American chefs in 1994 with “The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.”
On a recent weekday at her airy house here, she has pulled an apron over a gray-and black-striped scoop-neck tee. Her short chestnut hair is brushed away from her face, revealing brown eyes aglow with the rush of cooking good food. Her lunch menu looks just as eclectic and ambitious as ever. She has been revisiting favorite recipes, casually considering an anthology. Today’s include seared scallops with tangerine sauce from “The Cooking of Southwest France” (1983) and slow-cooked mushrooms from “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” (2009).
She washes her hands before giving the scallops a quick toss in their marinade, which includes parsley and thyme from her garden. Later, when she broils them, she’ll flip each scallop, sizzling hot, with her bare fingertips. (She still has the asbestos hands of a line cook, numb to heat.)
Then something unusual happens. She turns to “The Cooking of Southwest France,” lying open on the counter, and reads from her own recipe. “Bring to a boil and add cream,” she says, readying her measuring cups. When she is about to pour, she turns back to the book. “Is it a third of a cup or a half? I forget everything as soon as I read it.”
Wolfert has turned into a cook like the rest of us, judging by appearances. Rather like when Superman surrendered his powers to try life as a mortal, this new phase is giving her profound insight. She looks up from the book and laughs. “Now that I have to follow my own recipes, some of them are so hard!”
It’s good to hear her laugh again. For several years, Wolfert suspected something was wrong. In its earliest stages, Alzheimer’s disease is surprisingly hard to detect. The telltale proteins that may cause degeneration can be confirmed only by a brain sample taken at autopsy. For a living patient, doctors look to other signs, including memory loss and other difficulties in functioning. Yet the illness can affect the brain for up to two decades before symptoms are noticed. It’s common for patients, even doctors, to dismiss the first signs as aging or fatigue.
Wolfert is also something of a hypochondriac. When she first started forgetting words, she complained that she was losing her mind. Friends and her doctor insisted she was fine. Then two years ago, during appearances to promote her most recent book, “The Food of Morocco” (2011), whenever someone asked her a multi-pronged question, “I couldn’t connect three sentences together,” she says. Wolfert started to navigate interviews like an evasive politician. She insisted on receiving questions ahead of time. If a question surprised her, she would redirect.
When she couldn’t follow one query from Leonard Lopate on radio station WNYC, “I said, ‘That’s a great question! We don’t have much time, and I really want to talk about the magic of the tagine!’ I can talk about the magic of the tagine for half an hour. I did that a number of times,” she says.
Still, her doctor told her there was nothing wrong.
Finally, late last year her husband suggested that they have omelets for lunch. Wolfert had studied in the 1950s with Dione Lucas, an early promoter of classic French cooking and perhaps the greatest omelet chef who ever lived (and the first woman ever to appear on a cooking show). Wolfert drew a blank. “I said to Bill, ‘Wait a minute, how do you make an omelet?’ ”
She saw two neurologists. Each had a different opinion. One said she had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease; the other diagnosed mild cognitive impairment, a form of dementia that can progress to Alzheimer’s. Time will tell which one she has, depending on how much she loses. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I know there’s something wrong. This isn’t the Paula that I used to know.”
Dementia is an unpredictable foe. There is no cure and no sure way to slow its progress. In 1983, New York University physician Barry Reisberg delineated seven stages to measure its progress. Wolfert has been told she appears to be at Stage Four, moderate cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that includes “greater difficulty performing complex tasks, such as planning dinner for guests,” and “forgetfulness of recent events.”
Thankfully, her long-term memories remain crystal clear. When she can’t remember how much cream to add to the tangerine sauce, she remembers where she discovered the sauce: On her first trip to Southwest France in 1978, from a rising-star Gascon chef named Jean-Louis Palladin.
“I had never seen food like his,” she recalls. “It was so vivid. And his restaurant was beautiful,” she says of La Table des Cordeliers, where, at age 28, Palladin became the youngest chef in history to win two Michelin stars. “He had a table for the poor in the dining room, where he served leftovers,” she recalls.
Palladin left for Washington to open Jean-Louis at the Watergate in 1979, transforming American restaurants forever. Among the first chefs here to cook farm-to-table, Palladin at first lamented to Wolfert and others that he couldn’t find good-quality local ingredients. But that didn’t stop him from looking. “One time he took us to a part of town in Washington where you could buy live chickens, where we were the only white people,” Wolfert recalls. Then she notices that the mushrooms are scorching. “Oh, God, I’m burning things,” she says, and lowers the flame.
Wolfert knows that her condition has no cure. But once she was given a diagnosis, she looked to food to help — not just to keep her mind engaged, but also to see whether superfoods could buy her time: “My feeling is, accept that it is what it is, but stall it by trying to do as much as possible.” She began taking donepezil, a drug used to treat dementia that might aid cognitive function. She scanned the Internet and started watching “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV. Her condition became a surprising blessing: After a lifetime of charting different cuisines, now she had a scientific frontier to explore.
After a Uruguayan cardiologist named Alejandro Junger mentioned on “Dr. Oz” that inflammation can affect the brain, she tried Junger’s month-long anti-inflammatory Clean Gut cleanse, further popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow. It didn’t restore her short-term memory, but she says she felt healthier and more alert. Now she starts every morning with a smoothie jammed with superfoods that might include seasonal greens, flaxseed, coconut oil, Brazil nuts and a half-dozen vitamins and extracts, such as rosemary extract, curcumin (found in turmeric) and bioperene (found in black pepper). “Keep in mind this is for a warrior, not for a gourmet,” she wrote to her neurologist when she e-mailed her the list of ingredients to confirm that all of it was safe to drink.
A lifelong ingredient scout — and pioneer of mail order — she tapped into her network to find the best superfood sources. To maximize her omega-3s, on the recommendation of a fisherman friend, she ordered 48 six-ounce packages of wild Alaskan king and sockeye salmon from Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics (www.vitalchoice.com). (She eats only three ounces at a time, using the carbon-steel cleaver she bought as a culinary student of Dione Lucas to hack one frozen fillet in two.) Her favorite Angelo Parodi sardines from Portugal proved too expensive, so she ordered four cases of the more affordable Season brand from Morocco. (“I wish I had more sardine recipes in my books!” she says. “I’m trying to get myself to eat two cans a week.”)
Wolfert cut back on carbs and gluten after hearing that they might hasten the progression of the illness. She has a light snack in the afternoons, often gluten-free crackers spread with coconut oil. She usually skips dinner, because she’s not hungry and for the supposed benefits of intermittent fasting. Lunch is light, usually seafood and vegetables, followed by an espresso and a square of dark chocolate, both of which might slow memory loss.
Is any of it working? The only evidence she can cite is that she looks and feels better than she has in years. “I know I’m not better, but I’m not getting worse,” Wolfert says.
While Bayer sets the table, Wolfert opens one of her two dishwashers to clean up before finishing the sauce.
The reduction is a throwback to an earlier time, and it sparks memories. As she watches the bright orange sauce bubble and thicken, citrusy scents float up and the recollections rush back. “I remember now! The spoon draws a line through the cream when it’s ready. I used to tell people, ‘You just catch a glimpse of the bottom of the pan!’ ” She shouts that line with the oratory and enthusiasm of Tony Robbins. Before Food Network, through the 1980s, Wolfert was a cooking star, teaching in up to 40 cities a year.
With Alzheimer’s, she is teaching again. She went public with her diagnosis last month after reaching out to the Alzheimer’s Association to see how she could help.
As she serves the meal, her husband quietly checks to make sure the cooking appliances have been turned off.
The mushrooms are a tad overcooked. But they also have a remarkable intensity from simmering on the stove for just under an hour, one of Wolfert’s simplest recipes.
She tastes the scallops. Her face brightens with the delight of someone who has just bumped into an old friend. “That’s Jean-Louis!”
Thelin is a writer based in Berkeley, Calif. She was Paula Wolfert’s editor at Food & Wine magazine from 2006 to 2010. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.