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 in 2013, 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. 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.
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.
Many dishes, like her fluffy Mint and egg salad and 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.
Eggplant Zaalouk is among Paula Wolfert’s favorite Moroccan salads. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.Emily Kaiser Thelin’s proposal for a book about the life of cookbook author Paula Wolfert was turned down several times before she decided to self-publish “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life.” MUST CREDIT: Eric Wolfinger.
Many of Paula Wolfert’s dishes, like her fluffy Mint and egg Salad are brilliant in their simplicity. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
Mint and egg salad
The combination of grated eggs, fresh herbs and a lemony vinaigrette makes this one of brightest-tasting egg salads you’ll ever try. Serve as an accompaniment to grilled skewers or with a green salad.
Adapted from “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life,” by Emily Kaiser Thelin
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
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
This smoky eggplant and tomato dish is among Paula Wolfert’s favorite Moroccan salads.
Adapted from “Unforgettable.”
2 eggplants (about 12 ounces each)
2 or 3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon flaked sea salt, or more as needed
5 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces peeled, seeded and finely chopped tomatoes (fresh or no-salt-added canned)
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin, toasted (see NOTE)
½ teaspoon sweet Spanish smoked paprika (dulce pimenton)
Pinch ground cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Position an oven rack 6 inches from the broiling element; preheat the broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, then lightly grease with cooking oil spray.
Cut the eggplants in half and place them cut sides down on the baking sheet. Broil for about 20 minutes or until blackened and collapsed. Transfer the eggplants to a colander to cool slightly, then scoop out the flesh and let it drain in the colander, discarding any large pockets of seeds. Squeeze gently to extract more juices.
Use the flat side of a chef’s knife to crush the garlic (to taste). Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of the salt and mash to form a paste.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in an enameled cast-iron pan, over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the tomatoes, salted garlic, cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce and most of the moisture in the pot has evaporated.
Add the eggplant flesh, using the back of a spoon or fork to crush any big lumps. Stir in the cilantro and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often, to form a mixture that is thick yet not dry. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Fold in the lemon juice and the remaining 2½ tablespoons oil. Taste and add more salt, as needed.