New Biography Features Recipes Of Famed Chef And Cookbook Author Paula Wolfert

Nov 26, 2017
Originally published on November 27, 2017 8:43 am

A new biography of famed chef and cookbook author Paula Wolfert was recently published, featuring — you guessed it — some of her delicious recipes.

Wolfert has been called the Julia Child of Mediterranean food in America. She once spoke eight languages and could tell how a piece of bread was leavened with one bite. Thanks to her detailed writing, top chefs in the U.S. say she taught them to treasure flavors from the Mediterranean.

But a few years ago, Wolfert was diagnosed with dementia.

That's when Emily Kaiser Thelin set out to capture Wolfert's memories and recipes while she still could, and published them in Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life. She was Wolfert's editor and has now become her biographer.

Thelin tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that it wasn't easy getting her book published.

"About a dozen publishers told me her time passed but I felt her accomplishments were too important to not have a book," Thelin says. "So with the support of the photographer on the book Eric Wolfinger, he suggested we just publish it ourselves and use Kickstarter to raise the money — which allowed us to publish it."

Interview Highlights

On Wolfert's dementia

She was diagnosed with dementia in January of 2013, but that is a big part of what motivated us to act. We saw the opportunity to cook with her was another way to research her experiences and her stories, to see what memories these recipes might evoke.

One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer and many types of dementia is it takes away your sense of smoke, which is incredibly important as a food safety measure as a cook. So we very quickly took her away from the stoves, but she could still sit there and watch us cook.

We also would have her do certain, very easy prep steps like this incredible eggplant relish that her grandmother taught her, which involves squeezing the eggplants between her hands. And that was an incredible moment because while was she was standing there talking to me and saying: "I don't remember anything about this dish," but clearly her hands showed an incredible familiarity with the prep steps.

On the level of detail of the recipes in the book

Her cookbooks assume a high degree of cooking experience. Her biggest audience were professional chefs and she basically wrote her books for them. I wanted to let anybody cook these. Obviously couscous is one of the most difficult recipes in the book.

We chose most of her most accessible recipes so that you could discover the wonderful flavors of pomegranate molasses or sumac. We wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the incredible layered and truly unforgettable flavors of the best of her recipes.

Recommendation for a post-Thanksgiving antidote

The cracked green olive relish, which is from southeastern Turkey, is a terrific palate cleanser and uses wonderful fall foods like pomegranate seeds. You just have to be careful making it because you'll never want to stop making it.

Relish recipe as follows:

Cracked Green Olive, Walnut, and Pomegranate Relish

(Excerpted from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life)

This incredible recipe is from Ayfer Unsal, an acclaimed Turkish food journalist and gifted cook from Gaziantep and one of Paula's closest friends. It combines ingredients you would never expect to go together in such perfect balance: cracked green olives, crunchy walnuts, tangy pomegranate seeds, and zingy lemon juice. It is a lovely accompaniment to grilled fish or meat (such as pork skewers, page 209), Oven-Steamed Salmon (page 253), or melon.

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces (225 g) cracked green olives, pitted, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cup (90 g) walnuts, finely chopped by hand
  • 2 green onions, white and light green parts, minced
  • 1/4 cup (10 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash, or more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons pomegranate concentrate or molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup (85 g) fresh or thawed frozen pomegranate seeds

In a bowl, combine all the ingredients and stir to mix well. The relish can be served the same day it is made. However, if covered and refrigerated for 1 to 2 days, it will mature and develop peak flavor. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Copyright 2017 by Emily Kaiser Thelin. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Life & Style.

Thelin's book Unforgettable is on sale now.

NPR Digital News intern Jose Olivares produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We have a new biography to talk about - a biography with recipes. It's the story of Paula Wolfert. Wolfert lived in Marrakesh for a time and wrote the first major American cookbook from there. It's called "Couscous And Other Good Food From Morocco." Then she circled the Mediterranean, learning to speak eight languages as she chronicled the food of the region.

Top American chefs say she did for Mediterranean cooking what Julia Child did for the French kitchen. Emily Kaiser Thelin was Wolfert's editor and became her biographer. She describes Wolfert's tenacity in finding flavors.

EMILY KAISER THELIN: She really wanted to learn this one lamb dish of the city that is famous for being cooked only by men in a clay pot in the coals of the public baths, or hammams, overnight. And nobody knew how to make it. And finally, her chauffeur said, actually, ma'am, I know how to make it. And he took her on this midnight trip through the souks to get the lamb, the garlic, the pot.

WERTHEIMER: Thelin's new book is called "Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors Of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life." Our listeners should know Thelin and I know each other. And when we talked, she told me it was a challenge to sell publishers on the story.

THELIN: I shopped a proposal for her life story, and about a dozen publishers told me her time had passed. But I felt her accomplishments were too important to not have a book. So with support from the photographer on the book, Eric Wolfinger, he suggested we simply publish it ourselves and use Kickstarter to raise the money, which allowed us to publish it.

WERTHEIMER: There were, obviously, two important factors - one that you mentioned, that publishers felt readers wouldn't even remember her, but there was also the very big problem that Wolfert herself is not well.

THELIN: Yes. She was diagnosed with dementia in January of 2013, but that is a big part of what motivated us to act.

WERTHEIMER: Memory is a kind of subtext in the book. You invoke memory from the title, "Unforgettable." I mean, you wanted everyone to have that in mind, I guess, as they read the book?

THELIN: Yeah. We saw the opportunity to cook with her as another way to research her experiences and her stories to see what memories these recipes might evoke.

WERTHEIMER: But you found, I guess, to your shock and horror, that she couldn't really cook anymore.

THELIN: She could not. One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer's - and many types of dementia - is it takes away your sense of smoke, which is incredibly important as a food-safety measure as a cook. And so we very quickly took her away from the stoves, but she still could sit there and watch us cook.

We also would have her do certain very easy prep steps like this incredible eggplant relish that her grandmother taught her which involves squeezing the eggplants between her hands. And that was an incredible moment because she - while she was standing there talking to me and saying I don't remember anything about this dish, clearly, her hands showed an incredible familiarity with the steps.

WERTHEIMER: There are several photographs of Wolfert in the book wearing an apron. What's written on the apron is - keep calm and follow the recipe. Now, she is known for being able to remember recipes in great detail and tasting something and knowing what's in it. You make the recipes in the book very detailed with very clear instructions and accurate measurements - more detailed than her books were, as I recall. Why'd you do that?

THELIN: Her cookbooks assume a high degree of cooking experience. Her biggest audience were professional chefs. And she basically wrote her books for them. I wanted to let anybody cook these. Obviously, couscous is one of the most difficult recipes in the book. We chose most of her most accessible recipes so that you could discover the wonderful flavors of pomegranate molasses or sumac. Or - we wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the incredible layered and truly unforgettable flavors of the best Paula Wolfert recipes.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's get back to our country and this weekend. This is the Thanksgiving holiday. So I'm going to ask you for a recommendation for a post-Thanksgiving antidote.

THELIN: Absolutely. The cracked green olive relish, which is from southeastern Turkey, is a terrific palate cleanser. And it uses wonderful fall foods like pomegranate seeds. And you just want to be careful making it because you'll never want to stop making it. It's so good.

WERTHEIMER: Emily Thelin spoke to us from our member station KQED in San Francisco. Her book about Paula Wolfert is called "Unforgettable." Thank you very much.

THELIN: You're so welcome. Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: You can find that recipe for cracked olive relish online at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF GODDAMN ELECTRIC BILL'S "ECOTONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.