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Now reading The Power of Paula Wolfert

The Power of Paula Wolfert

If you don't know Paula, it's time to change that.

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Paula Wolfert is indisputably one of the all-time greatest cookbook authors. She is part of an elite group of (mostly) women who published landmark titles in the second half of the twentieth century, including Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, and Diana Kennedy. Each of these women helped to popularize a different global cuisine; each is known for her diligent research and exacting recipes.

Wolfert and her cookbooks—Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco and The Cooking of Southwest France, especially—were incredibly influential and ahead of their time. This is partly due to her dedication to her subject matter—she spends as many as five years researching and writing cookbook (as she did with Southwest)—and partly due to her unwavering dedication to the recipes themselves, which introduced Americans to ingredients like couscous and techniques like clay pot cooking.

“Paula is considered a cook’s cook,” writes Emily Kaiser Thelin in her new biographical cookbook about Wolfert’s life and work, Unforgettable. The implication is clear: Wolfert’s name recognition isn’t as great as her reputation within the food industry. In other words, Thelin writes, “Wolfert may be the most influential cookbook author you’ve never heard of.”

Indeed, famous chefs and cookbook authors are quoted throughout the book describing Wolfert’s impact on their work: She “paved the way to Morocco” for London chef/cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi; helped Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters move vegetables to the center of the plate; and “introduce[ed] the very idea of authenticity” to Americans, according to Mario Batali.

The book was even created by something of a cookbook super group: along with veteran food writer and editor Thelin, cookbook author Andrea Nguyen (Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, The Pho Cookbook), cookbook designer Toni Tajima (Pok Pok, Manresa), and photographer Eric Wolfinger (Flour + Water, Tartine Bread) worked on the project. You’d be hard pressed to put together a better group of cookbook professionals today, and the group’s commitment to the project speaks volumes about Wolfert’s regard within the food writing community.

And yet this book couldn’t find a home with a publisher. Unforgettable was self-published with funding from a Kickstarter after, Thelin writes, “a dozen publishers turned [it] down.” I cannot fathom why, but according to Thelin, the consensus among them was that Wolfert’s “story was interesting but her time had passed.”

Putting aside the fact that many of her contemporaries were and continue to be published well into their later years, it’s entirely possible that Wolfert’s work is more relevant to how people eat today than much of the twentieth-century cookbook canon. The food she writes about, with vegetables center stage and bright pops of flavor all over the place, is perfectly on trend. It’s full of whole grains and greens, flooded with herbs and olives and citrus. That time Wolfert was so ahead of in the ’70s and ’80s? It’s right now.

It’s also a hell of a story. Wolfert has lived all over the world, hobnobbing with the Beats in New York, Tangier, and Paris, as well as most of the food world legends of the twentieth century. She is by all accounts a charismatic adventurer who charmed her way into the kitchens of talented home cooks and chefs alike, peppering them with a remarkably precise line of questioning until she had a handle on their recipes. She is known for her impeccable palate and endless curiosity; qualities which have served her cookbooks well.

The book is called Unforgettable partially in reference to Wolfert’s 2013 Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Since then, she has become an advocate for awareness surrounding the illness and related conditions. She has also changed her cooking and eating habits to what she calls a brain-healthy diet, grains-and-greens heavy dishes that dovetail nicely with the Mediterranean cooking Wolfert covers in many of her cookbooks. Knowing from the beginning that her diagnosis is coming adds a somber lens to the story, lightened a touch by Wolfert’s great sense of humor. (“They say that’s one thing that never goes” as Alzheimer’s progresses, Wolfert tells Thelin.)

Beyond its fascinating subject, Unforgettable is just a well-crafted cookbook. The recipes are bulletproof. Originating from the master herself, then updated by Thelin and Nguyen, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. I tried five of them, including a weeknight-friendly Turkish bulgur-and-greens dish, an olive-studded chicken tagine, and Wolfert’s wild greens jam, a beloved creamy spread with a made of spiced greens blended with olive oil. None of the recipes I tested would be out of place in the trendiest of cookbooks or food magazines; in the right light, they’d be Instagram bait at a hot new restaurant.

All of these factors combine into the lively, recipe-packed tale of a woman who lived on her own terms and wrote some of the most impressively detailed, vital cookbooks out there. The fact that this charming read, packed with great recipes and photography, was dismissed by publishers tells me more about the cookbook industry than it does about Paula Wolfert’s relevance.

Publishing is a business, and if publishers didn’t think they’ve make money off Unforgettable, fine. But many dozens of cookbooks come across my desk every year, cookbooks that cannot possibly be selling. Entire books are written because some publisher thought a punny title was funny, or because the world needed a seventeenth cookbook written about a particular cocktail, or because a junior editor found the one restaurant in Brooklyn that didn’t have a book deal yet.

Compare that to Unforgettable: Thelin and her crew cared about this book and Wolfert’s story so much they didn’t take no for an answer. They raised the money themselves and shouldered the risk themselves, in the name of recording a story that is foundational to the history of American cookbook writing. The result is a thoughtful, important book—a great read that’s full of workable, delicious recipes.

In a cookbook landscape full of seven-minute meals and dump dishes and celebrity chefs no one has ever heard of, how will we ever find another Paula Wolfert? How will we find the next great research-oriented cookbook author, a culinary troubadour who inspires serious home cooks to fill their kitchens with clay pots and tagines, to tackle cassoulet, to grow all manner of wild greens in their gardens?

Thelin and company have artfully shown that it won’t necessarily be through the publishing houses. And in doing so, I hope, brought Paula Wolfert’s body of work to a new generation.