A renegade spirit in cooking and life

“Paula Wolfert is the most influential cookbook author you’ve never heard of,” says Emily Kaiser Thelin, “despite the fact that many of today’s most famous chefs—Alice Waters, Mario Batali and Yotam Ottolenghi, among others—regard her as one of their personal heroes.”

That was certainly true of Ms. Thelin, who didn’t know about Paula Wolfert until, as a line cook, she was introduced by her chef to Ms. Wolfert’s eight seminal books on Mediterranean cuisine. “Paula never had a restaurant. She never had a TV show. But she wrote an incredible number of books that had an extraordinary impact on the way we eat.”

Ms. Wolfert not only brought the foods, spices and cooking methods of the Mediterranean to an American audience, she did so at a time when “people were excited about orange juice concentrate or the powdered orange juice Tang,” explains Ms. Thelin, who started writing Unforgettable when Ms. Wolfert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013 at age 75.

“As Mario Batali said, Paula introduced the idea of authenticity to a generation of American cooks,” Ms. Thelin says. “She helped remind us about the value of replicating dishes as they are truly made in the region they come from.”

Otherworldly bonds

Ms. Wolfert certainly needed to make some adaptations, as she did in her first cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, published in 1973. “She rewrote tagine recipes for American metal pots, as there were no clay ones,” Ms. Thelin says. “But she made very few concessions past that. These recipes called for eight kinds of spices, and took four days to make.”

Ms. Thelin eventually became Ms. Wolfert’s editor at Food & Wine, where Ms. Wolfert contributed to the Master Cook column. Yet the two had never met until the opportunity arose to travel with Ms. Wolfert when she revamped Couscous.

“I was so curious to travel with her,” recalls Ms. Thelin. “She exceeded my expectations in so much of what I had imagined about her—and in other ways, I was shocked. Her Arabic was terrible, for example. But she forms these almost otherworldy bonds when she’s with a good cook.”

This magical connection played out when Ms. Wolfert was introduced to a friend’s housekeeper known for her skill in making a wonderful noodle dish. “The housekeeper met us in her finest Berber tunic, and Paula turned to me and said, ‘She really cares.’ Soon they were conversing in a mix of French, English and Arabic about the dish, this woman’s upbringing, her recent struggles to find a job. And this sort of glow started to take over the room where you could feel this woman was just drinking up Paula’s attention.”

Kickstarting success

After meeting and working with Ms. Wolfert, Ms. Thelin started entertaining the idea of writing a biography, but Ms. Wolfert balked at the idea. So they began “just doing a series of oral histories about her early life,” says Ms. Thelin. “But that, of course, only got me more interested. So I finally built up enough material to write a book proposal.”

The proposal received rejection after rejection from publishers that did not see a market for the idea. But then Ms. Wolfert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the Washington Post assigned Ms. Thelin to write about how Ms. Wolfert was coping. Hearing about the proposal, the photographer on this story, Eric Wolfinger, had another idea: “Let’s just Kickstart it and publish it ourselves.”

Together with Toni Tajima as designer and Andrea Nguyen as editor, they exceeded their initial goal of $45,000 in four days, eventually more than doubling that amount and self-publishing the book under their own publishing imprint, M&P. This October, the book will be published by Grand Central Life & Style, an imprint of Hachette.

Recipe for coping

Ms. Thelin wove three themes into Unforgettable. First, she details Ms. Wolfert’s “renegade” life with the Beat Generation in Tangier in the late 1950s, and then, post-divorce, her experience as a cookbook writer who would relentlessly hunt down a recipe from the best cook in a remote Moroccan village. Second, the book features 50 of her best recipes, and finally, describes how she is handling one of the most debilitating forms of dementia.

“One of the ideas behind the book was that we would see what kinds of memories would be provoked by cooking recipes for Paula that held real importance for her life,” explains Ms. Thelin. When they first made ajvar, “just watching her run the eggplant and red peppers through her hands, you had the sense that she had done this as a very young girl, that it was an intimately familiar act,” Ms. Thelin says.

Food’s ability to engage us on so many levels has been instrumental in anchoring Ms. Wolfert as she lives with Alzheimer’s. “Food is such a complex thing,” Ms. Thelin says. “It engages the brain on many, many levels—physical, emotional, mental. One of the things I love about Paula’s cookbooks is that her recipes are physically fun to make, delicious to eat, so interesting to think about—they hit on every possible note.”

Living in the now

“I learned that Alzheimer’s affects everybody in a different way, so you have to learn how it is relating to that person,” observes Ms. Thelin.

“Paula will have this moment where she’ll forget what she was saying and start over again. On the one hand, that’s distressing because she can’t hold onto her own thoughts, but on the other hand, it’s very Zen. It’s very in the moment, and she has really been able to embrace that aspect of it to a startling degree. She is proud of how she lives in the now.”

In addition to capturing the life of a “renegade spirit” and 50 of her best recipes, Ms. Thelin hopes Unforgettable also provides hope for those facing Alzheimer’s. “I hope Paula inspires people to adopt that kind of openness and willingness to embrace a horrible challenge with so much gusto and energy and confidence.”

How to make Paula Wolfert’s ajvar

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