One summer day four years ago, at an airy outdoor café in Sonoma, Paula Wolfert took Emily Kaiser Thelin out to lunch. The two women had maintained a close, ever-evolving friendship since the mid-aughts, when Thelin began editing Wolfert at Food & Wine. She’d long idolized Wolfert, a woman nearly four decades her senior. Wolfert, author of nine cookbooks, was an early champion of Mediterranean foods in a time when their ingredients went unnoticed in American kitchens, beginning with 1973’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. But Wolfert had something to tell Thelin: She had dementia.
Thelin was beside herself, though she wasn't entirely blindsided. She noticed traces before when she’d edited Wolfert. Wolfert would often complain that her mind didn’t work the same way it used to; that she couldn’t keep up with or follow her own train of thought; that her thoughts slipped past her before they could reach the page.
Thelin was sitting on a proposal for a book about Wolfert’s itinerant, rebellious life. The book promised to criss-cross between the Brooklyn of 1938 where Wolfert was born to the Beat-era New York of the 1950s all the way to Tangier and Paris, documenting how Wolfert explored the foodways of lands she'd encountered in her travels and how she brought those flavors home. Thelin became dependent on Wolfert’s participation for this project. News of Wolfert's dementia did not dampen Thelin's resolve; it gave her more fire. “I amended it to disclose the illness,” she tells me of the proposal. “Something in me decided that no matter what happened, I would get her story out.”
Thelin fought tooth and nail to get the book published. In her quest to secure a publisher, she was met with a stupefying answer: Wolfert, these editors claimed, was past her prime. She took matters into her own hands: After publishers didn’t bite, she decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. As the project gained more groundswell, some of the publishers who initially rejected the book backed the campaign rather generously. With time, Thelin came around to, even sympathized with, their initial position. As she conducted the research for her book, she met so many people, even ostensibly knowledgeable members of the food world, who asked her the same, infuriating question: Who is Paula Wolfert?
Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life, the fruit of Thelin’s tireless labor, is an answer to this question. She consigned the help of editor Andrea Nguyen, photographer Eric Wolfinger, and designer Toni Tajima to bring the book to life. Over 300 pages long, it fluently switches registers between the biographical details of Wolfert’s life and the many recipes she foraged for, charting how Wolfert’s travels had imprints on her work.
Thelin came to this project from a place of reverence. She first encountered Wolfert’s words in her early 20s, during the late 1990s, as if by accident. Working the pantry station as a line cook, Thelin’s chef asked her to make a Moroccan carrot salad. Her chef quipped that it was her take on a classic Wolfert recipe. Thelin was silent, nodding with a blank stare.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know who Paula Wolfert is!” the chef barked. She then pulled Thelin off the line and into her offices, shoving Couscous into her arms and insisting she read it that night.
Once Thelin began reading, she couldn’t stop. She was electrified by the confidence of Wolfert’s authorial voice, her willingness to wrangle with 300 years of a country’s culinary history and condense it into an English-language book. Thelin wondered why everyone wasn’t talking about Wolfert, why she hadn’t even known her name. “I loved her mix of adventure and seriousness, of deliciousness and historical immersion,” she says to me. “I’ve never found another cookbook writer like her.”
Though many American home cooks have been singing Wolfert’s gospel for decades, she isn’t discussed nearly enough as she should be. She's existed in the shadow of men like Yottam Ottolenghi, her spiritual successor, even though she tilled the ground he now walks on. Her lack of name recognition is incommensurate with her legacy, and with time and distance, it’s become easier to see how this happened. When Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Mediterranean came out in 1994, Wolfert toured the country, shoving hulking jars of Marash chile flakes under chef’s noses, going to bat for meze and pomegranate molasses. “She was like a community organizer, lobbying for the region, the Saul Alinsky to Yotam’s Obama,” Thelin claims. This was her modus operandi: She’d get these foods on your plate no matter what, cheerleading for them as loudly as she could.
“Her books were, with a few key exceptions, way ahead of their time, so they rarely caught on outside an elite food-insider circle,” she says. When Wolfert’s first book came out in 1973, this was long before Americans had access to clay tagines, yet she was willing to rewrite the tagine recipes for metal pots. She met Americans where they were.
But as time wore on, Wolfert became less lenient, more of a stickler, imagining culinary worlds America couldn’t yet handle. She refused to exoticize. When it came to 1994’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, she assumed the then-radical position of putting vegetables at the center of the plate, as was customary for many Mediterranean households she’d encountered along her travels. The idea struggled to catch on with America. And wild greens, whose glories she sung in 1998’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens, took years before they became a niche restaurant trend. “She foretold of a world that still doesn’t exist,” Thelin explains to me. “Except in Berkeley, where grocery stores carry wild nettles and purslane and we blend them for flavors like wine makers blend grapes.”
Blame this lack of recognition, then, on Wolfert’s purist leanings. But it owes itself to a personality trait, too: Wolfert’s relationship to fame has been combative. Thelin tells me Wolfert has dodged fame as much as she’s asked for it. The spotlight has long filled her with a sense of unease, finding that increased, more laser-focused attention bred resentment and envy.
“She bears responsibility for her own obscurity,” Thelin explains. “She could be maddeningly difficult, even to those closest to her.” Wolfert is slyly aware of this, to some extent: Thelin directs me to Wolfert’s Twitter handle, @Soumak, the Slavic spelling of sumac. The plant can be either edible or poisonous. That is, in effect, how Wolfert sees herself. She asks you to consume her knowledge; she knows she can be a little dangerous. That's part of her appeal.
Following Wolfert's diagnosis, invasiveness was an ethical concern for Thelin, yet these worries were mitigated by Wolfert's own attitude regarding her illness. Wolfert decreed she would be public about her condition, approaching it with clear eyes. If the overriding expectation is that one retreats when dealing with such a diagnosis, Wolfert has defied this, choosing to live this illness publicly. She has taken this principled stance because it's utilitarian: In her view, keeping mum about Alzheimer's diminishes access to care, or can lessen the possibility to fund for a cure.
One day last February, deep in the throes of her illness, Wolfert came down with a cold. It clawed away at her cognitive functions significantly. Thelin didn’t know if they could persist in working together on the book. It made her feel anxious, asking Wolfert to relive the most painful parts of her life, asking her to email documents as backups, asking her for connections to friends she hadn’t spoken to in years. During the cold, Wolfert could barely remember what room she was in; at times, she couldn’t even remember what Thelin’s name was. Thelin began to fear that the pressure of the book was worsening Wolfert’s condition, that she was beleaguering her subject.
When Thelin told Wolfert her fears, Wolfert said she was spewing nonsense. Wolfert insisted that they keep at it. And that they do it together. The two of them had always been honest with one another. Wolfert insisted that the book wasn’t depleting her of her trademark vitality; it was fueling her, renewing her sense of purpose. She could handle it.
The two women agreed, then: They would take a 10-day break as Wolfert recuperated. After a few days, her cold went away. Her outlook and recall improved. So they kept going.
Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life is now on sale through Amazon and select bookstores across the country. For more information about the project's genesis, visit the official website.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in March 2017.
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