Book Review: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin

Book Review: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin

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After I had read several articles explaining how Paula Wolfert, world class expert in Mediterranean cuisine, was dealing with dementia, I knew I had to have this book. The narrative, the recipes, and the pictures alone are reasons enough to buy Unforgettable; but, for me, as I’m sure for some of you, it resonated on an entirely different level. I have members of my immediate family who are suffering with Alzheimer’s. There is certainly a 50-50 chance I will as well. To read about Paula Wolfert and her determination to stave off the unrelenting onslaught of this disease is inspiring. To read that at any given time she can’t remember how to make an omelet is heartbreaking; but to read that she can still remember tastes and smells and that her hands can still automatically prepare food is exhilarating.

Unforgettable is a biography/cookbook that reads like a novel and could be a movie. Born to a mother who didn’t cook at all, Paula was sent to live with her grandmother when her mother was pregnant with her second child. It was in her grandmother’s kitchen that Paula began her love of cooking.

Throughout this book, you learn about the renegade that was/is Paula. She ran away from home, albeit to her Grandmother’s house, before she was 11. She was born to a secular Jewish family, but was well on the way to convert to Catholicism because she found it fascinating. Her parents found out and stopped it. She finished high school at 16 so she could go to Columbia School of General Studies and not leave New York City with her family. While at college, Paula participated in the “Beat” life. She ran poker games with her roommate and she hung out with poets and writers. As much of a rebel as she was, Paula still wanted the security of a handsome, successful Ivy League husband -which she found in Michael Wolfert. As a newlywed, Paula attempted and failed at making dinner for him, so started taking cooking lessons with Dionne Lucas in The Dakota apartment house on Central Park West. From working with Dionne Lucas, Paula went to cook with James Beard, who started her on a career in catering. Just as she was offered a major position in the Four Seasons kitchen, Paula and her husband decided to fulfill their shared dream to move to Tangier.

Paula’s life from then on reads like a travelogue and a melodrama. She threw herself whole heartedly into the cuisine and customs of each region and out of the way spot she visited. She learned from the people themselves – both chefs and homemakers. Paula took notes and asked about every nuance of the ingredients. It is this attention to detail that she puts into her books. No stone is left unturned. Most people probably don’t realize that no one had heard of couscous, preserved lemon, Aleppo pepper, or sumac (just to name a few) before Paula brought knowledge of them to the United States.

There are so many sides to Paula. She had two children and loved being a mother. She divorced her wayward husband and rebuilt her life with someone else. She continued to travel and learn and hug her way into the hearts of home cooks everywhere. And then, this brilliant woman with a prodigious memory realized that something was wrong. She could remember what happened 50 years ago; but couldn’t remember anything from five minutes ago.

The end of Unforgettable deals with how Paula is actively fighting and dealing with her condition. She is facing it head on and trying to help others as she does so. How fortunate Paula is to have people like Emily Thelin and others behind her; who spent years working with her before dementia set in; and can now help her produce the recipes and flavors that are helpful in awakening her memory. To quote Paula herself: “When I develop recipes, I always look for ways to create what I call the Big Taste…food that is deeply satisfying, and that appeals to all the senses. I like dishes that leave their flavor with me, whose tastes and aromas I will never forget.”

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