“Good food is memory.” —Paula Wolfert
“Paula Wolfert,” says her editor and food biographer Emily Thelin, “is the most influential food writer you’ve never heard of.”
Yet, if you’ve ever enjoyed a cassoulet or confit, delighted at a preserved lemon tucked into a dish, fluffed couscous with a fork or cooked in a tangine, you owe a culinary debt to Paula Wolfert — even if you’ve never heard of her.
Paula is the intrepid food journalist and chef who brought such delicacies as cassoulet and preserved lemons to American palates via her nine cookbooks, beginning with Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, published in 1973.
Following her first husband to Morocco in the ’60s, Paula became restless with the ennui of the bohemian expat crowd and instead turned her fine intelligence to the sights and smells of the souk, and finally to the kitchens and tables of the Moroccan people who frequented its food stalls.
Famous for nearly moving in with her subjects, Paula eventually found ease with seven languages, allowing her to move into the kitchens and homes of people across western Europe. An expert on Mediterranean cooking, including our favorite Clay Pot Cooking, Paula introduced French country cooking to an avid audience.
Now 78, Paula is a longtime resident of the town of Sonoma, where she shares a home with her husband, the writer William Bayer. She’s still on a mission, but its aim has altered. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, Paula can no longer differentiate tastes but she can still enjoy the kitchen.
Rather than examine the traditions of a particular geographical area, her focus today is on brain-healthy foods that she hopes will forestall the worst of her disease as long as possible.
Paula’s editor Emily Thelin (pictured above) realized that now is the time to capture Paula’s food memories and best recipes in a new collection and set about trying to sell the proposal through regular New York publishing channels. No one committed.
So she did what we do these days, she took it to Kickstarter, where 1,112 people donated to the cause, raising $91,000 and catching the interest of both famed food photographer Eric Wolfinger and acclaimed food writer Andrea Nguyen, who agreed to edit the text.
The resulting book, Unforgettable, gathers together some of Paula’s favorite and most iconic recipes along with a lively biography peppered with intelligent asides by Thelin throughout.
A loving and alacritive recent article by New York Times food writer Kim Severson looks at Paula’s current life, after the book’s publication, where she is still active in the kitchen and able to surprise both her biographer and her assistants.
Accompanied by photographer Wolfinger, Thelin and Paula come to SHED on Sunday, June 4, for a special celebration dinner. Each diner will receive a copy of Unforgettable as part of the night. Our chef Perry Hoffman has created a splendid Middle Eastern-themed dinner in Paula’s honor.
“I don’t remember yesterday,” Paula says plainly to the camera in her Kickstarter film. “Tomorrow, I could get hit by a car. So I live in the now and I make it work for me.”
It appears that there’s more to learn from Paula after all.
The Unforgettable dinner honoring Paula Wolfert is slated for Sunday, June 4, from 5pm. $115 per person; includes the book. RSVP today.