At the height of her career, Paula Wolfert, the author of eight influential cookbooks, had a memory that her peers could only envy. She would notice an unusual salt used in the water to cook pasta. She could re-create a complex recipe from two lines scribbled in her notebook. But in 2010, at age 72, she struggled to remember simple things — even, one day, how to make an omelet. Three years later, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
It was a devastating moment not just for Wolfert but also for Emily Kaiser Thelin, a young food writer who had befriended Wolfert and was mulling writing her biography. Time was now short to record the grand adventures of Wolfert’s life — from her beatnik days in Tangier and her explorations of Morocco, southwest France and the eastern Mediterranean. But when Thelin, who first wrote about Wolfert’s diagnosis on assignment for The Washington Post, floated a book proposal, 10 publishers turned her down: Wolfert’s books had never sold well, they said. Her time had passed.
Thelin disagreed. Wolfert, she writes in her new self-published bio-cookbook, “may be the most influential cookbook author you’ve never heard of.” She introduced Americans to couscous and tagines; she evangelized regional cuisines long before they were a culinary trend; in 1998, when kale was anything but an “it” vegetable, Wolfert dedicated a whole book to the delicious possibilities of leafy greens and whole grains. True, her books didn’t sell well — her most popular sold 25,000 copies — but she apparently maintained a dedicated fan base. A 2015 Kickstarter campaign to fund Thelin’s “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life” reached its goal in four days and ultimately raised $91,000 from more than 1,100 contributors.
Wolfert was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents who served up a typical postwar diet of “boiled and broiled” everything. It was her grandparents, immigrants from the Balkans, who first inspired her to love food and to equate food with love. As a child, Wolfert was “highly unconventional and doggedly curious.” At 11, she befriended several Catholic girls who lived nearby and was baptized, confirmed and took first communion before her mother found her out. When her parents decided to move to the Connecticut suburbs, Wolfert took enough summer classes to graduate early and, at 16, moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University.
Either the world was a much smaller place in the 1950s or Wolfert had an uncanny knack for finding people who were making history. In college, she fell in with the Beats, including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, “kindred spirits in their quest for authentic sensory experiences.” After she married, she decided, on the advice of her mother, to take a cooking class and ended up learning from and then working for Dione Lucas, the first woman to have her own TV cooking show, and then later James Beard. In 1959, when she and her husband moved to Tangier, they fell in with the writers Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs, as you do.
It would be so easy to romanticize Wolfert’s life. (Born a few decades earlier, she probably would have been hanging out with Hemingway in Paris.) But Thelin does not buff away Wolfert’s darker moments, including her first husband’s multiple affairs and their eventual divorce, which sent her back to New York alone with two young children to support. For me, and I’d imagine many readers, this makes Wolfert all the more compelling. Moxie, not luck, begets a renegade life.
Back in New York, through more illustrious connections — Frederick Vreeland, Vogue editor Diana’s son, and CBS Chairman William Paley — Wolfert was hired by Columbia Records to create so-called party boxes that shipped recipes and exotic ingredients to subscribers. With the emphasis on authenticity, her job was as much about sourcing — imagine finding tiger lily buds and lime leaves in the 1960s! — as the recipes themselves. And when that gig came to an end, her friend, the legendary Mexican culinary scholar Diana Kennedy, helped her land her first cookbook deal for “Couscous and Other Good Foods From Morocco.”
The great yarns continue, as Wolfert ferrets out recipes, first in Morocco — she wrote the seminal “Couscous” in just 18 months — and then in Gascony, Turkey, the republic of Georgia and so on. In each place, Wolfert was relentless in her search for the best cooks (she often studied their language so she could better communicate) and in her methods for recording their ways. Once, to gauge the precise amount of salt sprinkled on duck breasts before searing, she slipped a piece of paper between cook Ariane Daguin’s fingers and the meat to measure how much fell.
Wolfert’s exactitude can be infuriating for home cooks, and perhaps this is why, despite being first to so many trends, she never achieved the same national celebrity as some of her friends, such as Jacques Pepin or Craig Claiborne. There’s a reason that, good as it probably is, rolling your own couscous never caught on because, well, it’s a pain. In several recipes I tested, there were steps that didn’t seem to make sense. (While cooking, I must have said, “Really, Paula? Really?” a dozen times out loud.) But in almost every case, Wolfert has her reasons. Why in a simple recipe for Turkish Yogurt Sauce do you have to drain the yogurt, then add water back in? It softens the tang and opens the yogurt up for the flavors, according to Thelin. “It’s like priming a canvas,” she said. “It’s so Paula; [it] doesn’t seem worth it, but it is.” (Indeed, we tested it once following Wolfert’s instructions and once doing it the way that seemed to make more sense, and, yes, Wolfert is right.)
It would be wrong, though, to complain too much about the recipes. “Unforgettable” brought me Megadarra, a one-pot dish of lentils and rice spiked with pepper and fried onions, which may be the first time I’ve ever enthusiastically eaten lentils. Many dishes, like her fluffy Mint and Egg Salad and the Mussels Saganaki, cooked with powdered mustard and feta, are brilliant in their simplicity. For cooks who fear eggplant, her Moroccan Eggplant Zaalouk is an inspiration. There’s no salting or draining; the spread, brightened by lemon and cilantro, is ready in well under an hour.
If I have one complaint about “Unforgettable,” it’s that the specter of Alzheimer’s is present throughout the book. Wolfert’s inability to recount details or flavors pops up just when you are in the midst of a culinary escapade to somewhere such as Rabat or Istanbul. Over the past several years, Wolfert has aggressively investigated if and how diet can keep the disease’s symptoms at bay, and her notes are included in the book’s final chapter. But her battle with Alzheimer’s shouldn’t define her. It is only one small part of an unforgettable life.
Black is a Washington-based writer who covers food politics, culture and cookbooks.
4 appetizer or side-dish servings
4 large eggs, hard-cooked (see NOTE)
1 to 2 cups packed slivered mint leaves
2 bunches scallions (white and light-green parts), thinly sliced (at least 1 cup)
2 teaspoons mild red pepper flakes, such as Aleppo
2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
Flaked sea salt
Use the large-holed side of a box grater to grate the eggs over a large mixing bowl. Add the mint, scallions and red pepper flakes, tossing to incorporate.
Whisk together the oil and lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup, until well blended. Drizzle this over the egg mixture and toss to coat evenly. Season lightly with the salt. Serve right away, or refrigerate briefly until lightly chilled before serving.
NOTE: To hard-cook the eggs, place them in a steamer basket over a small saucepan with a few inches of water in it. Bring to barely a boil over medium heat; cover and steam for 12 or 13 minutes, then transfer the eggs to an ice-water bath to sit for at least 6 minutes. Drain and peel.
NUTRITION | Per serving: 150 calories, 7 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 185 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
More from Food: