Paula Wolfert is one of the most prolific and well-respected cookbook writers of our era. When her first effort, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, was published, quietly, in 1973, most Americans knew nothing about Moroccan food, nor were we used to cookbooks that interleafed recipes with evocative vignettes of life in their subject region and notes on personal experiences of discovery. These things have become commonplace today, but Wolfert was a pioneer of the genre. (The book has remained in print since it initiallyh appeared.)
She didn't stop there, of course, but went on to produce a mammoth tome on the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean (including not only Greece and Turkey but Georgia, Syria, and Jordan, among other countries), a definitive volume on the cooking of southwestern France, and five other cookbooks, cuiminating with 2011's The Food of Morocco, which began as an updating of her original book but grew into an entirely new work, focusing new attention on this wondrous and varied kind of cooking.
Like many people as they age, Wolfert, who is now 75, found herself, several years ago, beginning to lose words and forget little daily details — and in 2011, while touring with her last book, she realized that she could no longer remember lengthy questions from interviewers well enough to answer them. The following year, about to cook lunch for her husband, she suddenly couldn't remember how to make an omelette. She went to doctors and had tests, and late last year was diagnosed with MCI, or mild cognitive impairment — an early stage of Alzheimer's disease.
Wolfert has stopped writing and teaching cooking classes as a result (though she did still agree to become a member of The Daily Meal Council), and instead has been devoting her efforts to Alzheimer's activism.
This April 27th, from noon to 4 p.m., Wolfert will be guest of honor at a fundraiser, Mediterranean Feast, in Los Angeles to benefit the Alzheimer's Association. The food community has rallied to support this well-loved culinary icon and her cause. Among the participating chefs for the event, organized by chefs Susan Park and Farid Zadi and to be held at Sarkis Vartanian's downtown café, The Daily Dose, will be Nancy Silverton and Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza, Mary Sue Milliken of the Border Grill, Susan Feniger of Mud Hen Tavern, and Kris Yenbamroong of NIGHT+MARKET. Auction items will include cookbooks, cooking classes, and dinners from the likes of Mario Batali, José Andrés, Daniel Patterson, Suzanne Goin, and the James Beard Foundation.
The afternoon includes a tagine cooking demonstration and a food-station menu featuring such Moroccan and otherwise Mediterranean delights as whole roast lamb, porchetta, paella, bouillabaisse, bisteeya, rabbit with preserved pears and ginger, duck with green olives and herbes de Provence, Berber vegetable couscous, and pan-roasted cauliflower with pine nuts and raisins.
Meanwhile, in suppport of the same cause, Falafill, a multi-unit Mediterranean sandwich and mezze operation in Chicago, has launched a program inviting chefs from around the country to submit recipes for a falafel wrap, which will then be produced by the chain's units, with proceeds going to the Alzheimer's Association in Wolfert's name.
Wolfert has embraced her new role with all the enthusiasm she formerly brought to researching and testing and writing about all those wonderful recipes. "I am still the same person," she wrote to us in December. "Maybe just a bit more eccentric."