When was the last time you reached for a jar of preserved lemons at the grocery store, or dug into an aromatic tagine at a dinner party? It’s easy to forget that such things were entirely foreign not too many years ago. Today, many home cooks give credit to London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi for opening the door to this kind of Mediterranean cooking, but he would not have been able to build his influence without inspiration from Paula Wolfert, says Berkeley-based food writer Emily Kaiser Thelin.
“Paula Wolfert is the most influential cookbook writer you may have never heard of,” explains Thelin. “She introduced foods that we can now take for granted, like preserved lemons, Moroccan tagines, cassoulet, duck confit, aleppo pepper. And she’s been a huge influence to some of our most influential chefs, like Ottolenghi and Mario Batali.”
Thelin, a former restaurant cook, is herself no slouch when it comes to food writing. She has been an editor at Food & Wine Magazine and currently contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Food & Wine and The Wall Street Journal. She got to know Wolfert when she edited Wolfert’s Master Cook column at Food & Wine, and has remained friends with the Sonoma-based cookbook writer.
Thelin was also one of the first people to learn that Wolfert had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Inspired by Wolfert’s life and driven by a desire to capture the memories she still has, Thelin has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a new biographical cookbook.
“As revered as she is, few people know her amazing life story,” says Thelin in her Kickstarter video. “While she’s still around to tell it, we want to get it down in the best way we know how — a cookbook.”
Thelin and Wolfert have teamed up with three other Bay Area cookbook professionals: Andrea Nguyen, herself an influential cookbook author on Asian cuisine; Eric Wolfinger, the photographer behind the cookbooks Tartine Bread, Manresa, and Benu; and Toni Tajima, a designer who worked on books like Pok Pok and Manresa at Ten Speed Press.
The book will feature 50 of Wolfert’s best dishes, culled from her nine cookbooks and countless magazine articles. Many of the recipes will fall in line with Wolfert’s “brain-centric” diet, which emphasizes healthy meats and fresh vegetables.
But the book will be more than just a compilation. The team will cook the dishes alongside Wolfert ” and see what feelings and stories they evoke,” said Thelin. “We want to explore the relationship between food and memory.”
“There is so much shame and stigma around dementia that a diagnosis like that typically inspires retreat, but Paula refuses to give up,” Thelin continued. “She is tackling this illness the same way she built her entire career, with relentless curiosity and fearlessness.”
As of this morning, the Kickstarter campaign has already raised close to $30,000; Thelin needs to raise at least $45,000 to keep the project alive. Additional funds will be used to produce additional copies of the book. Funds raised for book sales beyond the Kickstarter will go to fund Alzheimer’s research.