What the cookbook is: A beguiling biography about the quirky and colorful Paula Wolfert, told through stories, photographs, and recipes.
What the cookbook is not: A flat, run-of-the-mill reference-style cookbook.
Who this book is best suited for: Anyone who enjoys reading about colorful, food-loving, memorable pioneers.
Three words to sum it up: My new favorite.
The Review: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life
This book had me at “Good food is memory”. It is a theme of Emily Kaiser Thelin‘s biography about Paula Wolfert, wherein the author tells the story of the Couscous Queen, starting with her humble beginnings living in Brooklyn and ending with her third act, living with Alzheimer’s.
Wolfert Paula, who’s been marching to the beat of her own drum since her childhood, is the most influential female chef most people have never heard of. Before reading this book, [as a food lover, I am ashamed to say] I didn’t know that I knew who Paula was. Twenty pages in, I was reminded that I’ve seen her writing and recipes before.
Thelin’s documentation in Unforgettable spares no detail. Her writing is loquacious; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally, I felt like I was paying more attention to her voice than what she was trying to say. Though I found it to be irksome, it doesn’t detract from the overall body of work. In fact, I read the book cover to cover.
I feel like I know Paula from the photographs and scanned memorabilia framing pages of each chapter. I want so badly to invite her to my house to teach me to cook and share her stories in-person. Among her accomplishments, Paula lived among the Beats in Morocco and caught the professional eye of one James Beard in the 50s. She assembled Columbia House party boxes in the 70s. And she assimilated into Moroccan, French, and Eastern Meditteranean cultures to bring their foodways into the then-modern American kitchen.
Not only are the stories utterly captivating, but the recipes are mouth-wateringly documented and photographed. Paula’s perspicacity and attention-to-detail undoubtedly brought a little spice (forgive the pun) into stateside kitchens and influenced the way Americans cook. See for yourself with the three page cassoulet recipe.
Being someone who studies old cookbooks, I was surprised to see how timeless Paula’s recipes are. The ingredient lists are without processed ingredients or questionable pairings — something you can’t say about the vast majority of mid-century recipes.
It was tough narrowing down which recipes to try from this cookbook because every single one looked out of this world. Because I wanted a lunch menu, I settled on Ćevapčići (pronounced Che-VAHP-chi-cee), Turkish Yogurt Sauce, and Deconstructed Hummus. Each of these recipes had the common thread of a healthy dose of a garlic-salt paste, made by pounding the two ingredients together with a mortar and pestle. The flavors, especially in the yogurt sauce and hummus, were robust and fresh. The directions were easy to follow and didn’t take too much time or kitchen equipment, reason enough to sing its writer’s praises.
The time you spend reading is time you’ll spend getting to know a vibrant, pioneering woman through her life’s stories and her recipes. Subsequently, it’s time you’re sure to spend mending a broken heart when it hits you that such a bright, beautiful mind is now blotted by Alzheimer’s. More than anything, it will remind you why it’s so important to feed your stomach and your soul with food (from near and far) and family (by blood or by bond) during your short stint on earth. Reading this book, and eating your way through it, is an experience that is surely unforgettable.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this cookbook in exchange for an honest review.