'Unforgettable' cookbook a biography of culinary explorer Paula Wolfert
“Unforgettable,” the life story of Mediterranean food maven Paula Wolfert of Sonoma, was released this week with a title and a format that are as multidimensional as Wolfert herself. The narrative of Wolfert’s life is punctuated by 50-some recipes and mouth-watering photos, ranging from childhood favorites made from eggplant and peppers by Wolfert’s grandmother to brain-healthy dishes like the Avocado and Sardine Toasts inspired by Catalan chef Ferran Adrià.
Biographer Emily Kaiser Thelin hand-picked the recipes, not as a compendium of “greatest hits,’ but as a reflection of Wolfert’s life as a maverick with a penchant for bold flavors.
“We wanted to show above all how modern and contemporary and avant-garde and accessible some of her recipes are,” Thelin said in a phone interview from her Berkeley home. “We wanted to showcase the dishes that make you think, ‘Oh my god, I want to make that right now.’”
Still, there was “fresh heartbreak” whenever Thelin had to whittle the choices down to just a handful of recipes that Wolfert wrote in her cookbooks at the height of her career, between 1973 and 2011.
“That was the most stressful part of the process,” said Thelin, 41. “We just picked the recipes that helped tell the story and propel the narrative.”
There’s more heartbreak to the story than just the editing process. Thelin first launched the ambitious project back in 2010, and four years into the project, Wolfert was diagnosed with dementia, perhaps an early form of Alzheimer’s. This week, more trim and youthful looking than ever, Wolfert will turn 79.
Those who know the self-effacing writer and culinary adventurer will not be surprised to learn that she initially tried to talk Thelin out of writing the biography. Famous for taking the path less traveled in the food world, the cookbook author was not interested in retracing the steps of her own life story, despite its often exotic locales and dramatic plot twists.
“The only way I got her to cooperate was to do some oral histories,” said Thelin, who served as Wolfert’s editor at Food & Wine magazine for a few years. “Even then, she had started to think something was wrong with her cognitive abilities. That helped grant me access.”
Once she got her foot in the door of Wolfert’s life, however, Thelin was able to coax the pioneering cookbook writer to open up about her early years as a beatnik living in Tangier, Morocco, and Paris as well as her days as “Indiana Jones” romancing the recipes out of Mediterranean home cooks from Alicante to Athens.
As time went on, however, Wolfert’s stories started to fray at the edges.
“When we started in 2010, her memory was incredible. ... She had a real steel-trap mind,” Thelin said. “But the end, she couldn’t remember as much and could not articulate it as clearly and beautifully. For someone who’s passionate about good writing, that’s the hardest part of the illness for her.”
Wolfert was never one to feel sorry for herself, however. Since her diagnosis, she has been fighting back against her condition, not only as an activist urging others to avoid denial and get their brains tested, but by tweaking her own diet with cutting-edge techniques like moderate fasting and the butter-laden, “bulletproof” coffee that she hopes will stall the progressive brain disorder.