Food editor Emily Kaiser Thelin’s book “UNFORGETTABLE: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life” tells the story of Paula Wolfert, culinary legend and author of nine award-winning cookbooks who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. This biographical cookbook explores Paula’s life as a cooking trailblazer, explores the relationship between food, memory and culture, plus shares more than fifty of Wolfert’s most iconic dishes.
We recently spoke with Thelin about Wolfert and her new book.
Q. First of all, how is Paula doing, and what is it about her that sets her apart from other cookbook authors/culinary experts?
Paula is doing well, all things considered. She remains engaged with her family, friends, and her health, and continues to experiment with regimen. Her approach to her dementia mirrors her approach to food; she has a rare doggedness. She refuses to give up, whether it’s her fight against her illness or, at the height of her food career, the pursuit of what she called The Big Taste. It’s hard to imagine today when we can thankfully take good food for granted. But at the height of Paula’s cookbook career, America was in thrall to convenience foods and packaged goods. She became a hero to chefs like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Yotam Ottolenghi, for championing foods of tradition and place, particularly Mediterranean flavors and slow cooking. In her relentlessness, she was the first to introduce to the American mainstream to a surprisingly wide range of traditional, slow-cooked foods and flavors—everything from Moroccan tagines to duck confit, from preserved lemons to Aleppo and Marash chile flakes.
Q. Paula is referred to as a “renegade” in the book. Why is that? Can you give an example?
Paula is a renegade because she has always lived ahead of her time and never shied away from going against prevailing trends. Her dementia diagnosis is a classic example: Where many reasonable people try to hide such a troubling diagnosis from even family and friends, Paula announced it on Twitter. She wanted to set an example of openness, to inspire others to join her in her fight against the illness.
Q. You write in your book that Paula has turned to food to cope with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. What does that mean? What does her “brain-centric” diet entail?
Paula has transformed her relationship to food. Where the topic used to be a font of inspiration as well as indulgence, today she treats food as medicine. To help her cope with her diagnosis, she has scoured the research for clues of what might work. There is no definitive science to prove food can help fight Alzheimer’s or other kinds of dementia. But she insists she feels better than she has her entire life by focusing on a high protein, low carb diet, with an emphasis on heart-healthy proteins like wild-caught salmon and grass-fed beef, loads of fresh vegetables, and healthy fats such as coconut oil and olive oil. She also swears by Bulletproof® Coffee and intermittent fasting. For the most part, she can no longer cook for herself. But she is lucky to have devoted family who help her.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer, editor, and former restaurant cook. A two-time finalist for James Beard awards, and a former editor at Food & Wine, her work has also appeared in Oprah, Dwell, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.