The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Paula Wolfert
The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees one per weekday. Our ninth inductee is Paula Wolfert. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.
Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (1938– ), first published in 1973, was one of the most influential cookbooks of the twentieth century. For one thing, it introduced the English-speaking world definitively to one of the Mediterranean's great cuisines; more than that, though, it helped pioneer a new genre of cookbooks, works that placed food in its cultural context rather than just assembling a catalogue of recipes. Jaded food folk read the book and reacted not only with respect for its then-unknown author but at least sometimes by developing a fresh outlook on their own areas of expertise. "It's hard to calculate the impact of Paula's first cookbook," Emily Kaiser Thelin notes in her splendid new biography Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life, "because its reach is so vast."
Born Paula Miriam Harris in Brooklyn, Wolfert, a member of The Daily Meal Council, went to Columbia University at the age of 16, worked briefly as an assistant to both Dione Lucas (a then-renowned if now largely forgotten cooking teacher) and James Beard, and in 1959 — for reasons that had more to do with a beatnik lifestyle than with cuisine — moved to Tangier with her first husband, Michael Wolfert.
Back in New York a dozen years later, and at the suggestion of writer Bill Bayer, who was to become her second husband, and with support from Mexican-food authority Diana Kennedy, she sold HarperCollins a proposal for a book about Moroccan cooking. This launched her career as, to quote Thelin again, "maybe the most influential cookbook author you've never heard of."
Plenty of people have heard of Wolfert, of course. She went on to write eight more cookbooks, most of them about Mediterranean food of one kind or another — including, in The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, the less than trendy cuisines of the Balkans (Wolfert has Serbian ancestry), Turkey, and even Syria. Reviewing another of her tomes, the prescient Mediterranean Grains and Greens, in Slate, Nicholas Lemann described Wolfert as "a genius who is also wildly popular," and compared her to William Gaddis, Ad Reinhardt, and John Cage as an "inaccessible deity."Her cookbooks are welcoming, encouraging, and plain-spoken (though well-phrased). They are also scrupulously researched, with thoroughly tested recipes, and confidently authoritative.
"Inaccessible" seems like a strange word to describe Wolfert: Her cookbooks are the opposite — welcoming, encouraging, and plain-spoken (though well-phrased). They are also scrupulously researched, with thoroughly tested recipes, and confidently authoritative.
Though she turned her attentions elsewhere, Wolfert never forsook Morocco. We sent her back there on assignment for Saveur in 1996, and her affectionate report on what had changed and what hadn't won her an M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation. When she later undertook a revision of Couscous, she found so much more wonderful food to write about that she ended up producing a completely new book, The Food of Morocco, which the Beard Awards named as Best International Cookbook in 2012.
Her fans likely expected Wolfert to go on writing wonderful cookbooks forever, but in late 2013, after finding herself unable to remember how to cook familiar dishes, she was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's disease. She gave up on cookbooks, but hasn't given up: Wolfert has become an Alzheimer's activist, urging people to get tested if they have reason for concern and assuring them that denial is not a viable option, even as she tries to slow down the effects of the disease through diet and activity.
Wolfert forgets more and more these days, but she herself remains unforgettable.