UNFORGETTABLE: Bold Flavors from Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life will tell the incredible life story of a culinary legend. With your help, this biographical cookbook will share 50 of her most unforgettable dishes, many of them in line with her new brain-healthy diet. To produce it, we have assembled a cookbook publishing dream team, collectively responsible for dozens of award-winning, game-changing books (see "About Us," below.) If this campaign succeeds, together we will explore the relationship between food and memory, as we cook those dishes for her, and see what recollections they provoke.
Wolfert never achieved the fame of peers like Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. But her life story is too good to forget. Often working below the radar, she changed the way America eats. Known as the Queen of the Mediterranean, she wrote nine seminal books on the region over her 50-year career, publishing her latest, The Foods of Morocco, in 2009. For five decades she championed authentic regional cooking and its components—whole foods, foraged greens, meats cooked in animal fat—way ahead of their time. Her determination made her a hero to some of our most influential chefs, like Mario Batali, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Alice Waters.
Three years ago, Wolfert was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She took on dementia the same way she researched her cookbooks: She dove into research. She discovered a study which showed how diet and other lifestyle changes could partially reverse cognitive decline in early-onset Alzheimer’s patients. She has turned to food as medicine. And she is seeing real results. Today, she says, she feels better than she has in years. And she has raced to share her new approach. The past two years, she has spoken at venues like City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco, and embraced television coverage from CBS and PBS. This spring she traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Alzheimer's Association as an early-stage advisor, to lobby Congress.
We want to offer her life as a model for how to live boldly with a terrible disease, and how to take on dementia with humor and compassion. We want to share her ideas for what she calls "the worriers and the warriors": Those nervous about the possibility of a diagnosis for themselves or their loved ones, and those already bravely coping with one.
Help us make this project a reality, today.
Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Wolfert yearned to explore undiscovered territory her entire life. Her own family didn't care much about dining well. But in the 1940s she experienced the power and pleasures of good food made with fresh ingredients, when she went to live for a year with her Balkan grandmother (pictured above.)
In the 1950s, Wolfert spent her teens and twenties rubbing shoulders with Beat Generation writers in New York like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac (who told her she had great legs). She learned to cook under two culinary luminaries, Dione Lucas and James Beard, and even spent a summer as a line cook. In 1959, she and her first husband, Michael Wolfert, moved abroad, to Tangier and Paris.
By 1969, her life had changed dramatically. She was living in New York and struggling just to get by. She turned to food. By 1971 she won her first book contract, to write her first book on Moroccan cooking.
She never stopped exploring. Fearless and intrepid, like a culinary Indiana Jones she lived to uncover undiscovered territory. In the 1970s and 80s, she spent five years in Southwest France, conspiring with star chef André Daguin (above) and his compatriots to record the recipes and techniques of their region. The resulting book, The Cooking of Southwest France, introduced Americans to the splendors of confit, cassoulet, and much more. In the 1990s Wolfert spent her fifties discovering cooks in the mountains and plains of central Asia, and learning to forage with peasant women in Southern Europe and Turkey.
Among the many elements that set her books apart, Wolfert takes an exceptionally immersive approach to her research. Where most cookbook authors might spend an afternoon with a good cook to learn a recipe, Wolfert moved in. She would spend weeks in a country, learned enough of the language to talk about the food, and often lived with a local family. At various points in her career, she has been conversant in seven languages: French, Arabic, Spanish, Georgian, Serbian, Greek, and one language you've probably never heard of, called Tanjaoui (a mix of French, Arabic and Spanish, spoken by residents of Tangiers.)
Morocco, France, Greece, Spain, Georgia, Turkey, Dagestan, Sicily, Puglia, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia: name a land and she found a lifelong friend, a guide to the region's best recipes. She once told me: “In every country I have one woman who’s helped me for some reason. I don’t know what I do. I kiss them on each cheek and touch my heart! I like to move in on the couch and get all the details.”
We will cull through Wolfert's nine books and hundreds of magazine articles to deliver 50 of her most bold-flavored dishes. Highlights include:
- Grilled pork skewers in a tangy-sweet marinade of pomegranate molasses and dill, a dish from the Caucasus mountains of Central Asia
- Creamy avocado toasts, adapted from a dish by iconic Spanish chef Ferran Adrià
- Shrimp suquet, a kind of Catalonian stir fry, with ground almonds and a savory hit of cognac.
Wolfert's recipes are like no other—each is a new discovery, yielding incredible flavors, often using unusual techniques and ingredients, often with an incredible backstory. Sometimes they're really hard. But this book will focus on her most accessible dishes. Some may also be good for your mind, in line with her new brain-centric diet, which emphasizes healthy meats and fresh vegetables. The recipes will include something for everyone, whether paleo, vegan, omnivore, or gluten-free.
The book will offer a visual journey through Paula's many adventures around the Mediterranean. It will be about 300 pages long. It will measure roughly 8" wide and 9" tall to match the trim size of most of Wolfert's other books.
If you have collected all of her titles, this work will look right at home on your shelf. If you don’t own any of her books, this title will offer an intimate yet immersive look at her life and work.
It will also feel good in the hand, whether you curl up with it in your favorite chair or splatter its pages as you cook with it in the kitchen.
The book will be released in the spring of 2017.
Why so far off? Cookbooks and nonfiction books typically take a minimum of 18 months to put together well. After 10 months of research, reporting and photography, the book will take another 8 months to be designed, edited, printed and distributed. We are fast tracking this but we also want to take time to produce a quality publication.
That’s a big number. But it only covers the costs to produce and distribute 1500 copies, or $30 a book.
Where is the money going? The bulk of the money will go to printing and distribution. The rest will be divided between research and writing, recipe testing, photography, design, editing, fact-checking, copy-editing, and indexing.
Everyone is working at a cut rate, volunteering time and expertise to keep the budget as low as possible. Wolfert is also volunteering her story and recipes as one of her efforts to fight Alzheimer's.
We have been stunned and thrilled at the strong response to this campaign. 81% funded by 400 backers in just three days! Truly unforgettable. So with your help, we are now aiming to raise $80,000, which will allow us to double our print run to 3000 copies. If we are able to sell additional books beyond the Kickstarter, we want to donate a meaningful portion of their proceeds to Alzheimer’s support and research.
About our T-shirt
To celebrate the power of cookbooks, lasting food memories and Paula Wolfert's contributions to American culinary history, our book designer, Toni Tajima (see below) has designed this ingenious shirt. Instead of the British crown, it features a clay tagine, the iconic Moroccan clay pot that Paula introduced to American cooks with her first book. The same design is also available on our sturdy, stain-resistant apron.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer and editor based in Berkeley, California, a former restaurant cook and a two-time James Beard finalist. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Oprah, among other publications. For four years she was an editor at Food & Wine magazine, where she oversaw Wolfert's Master Cook column. "I’ve wanted to write Paula's biography since we traveled together to Morocco, when she told me the extraordinary circumstances that led her to write her first book on Moroccan food," she says. Thelin was one of the first people Wolfert told about her diagnosis, and the first to write about it, in a feature for the Washington Post. To learn more about Emily, you can visit emilythelin.com.
Eric Wolfinger is a San Francisco-based photographer and former restaurant cook who brings a chef’s eye to his exceptional images. He has photographed such award-winning cookbooks as Corey Lee’s Benu, David Kinch’s Manresa, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, and Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread Book. Eric oversees the photography and videography for this book. "I wanted to do this because I love her food, and because I admire her immersive approach to her work. I can relate to it. After cooking through a fair number of her recipes, I've learned to trust where she takes me, no matter how crazy it sounds. I'm also doing this to honor my grandmother, who had Alzheimer's." You can find more about Eric at ericwolfinger.com.
Toni Tajima has designed dozens of visually groundbreaking books as an art director at Ten Speed Press for nearly two decades before recently going freelance. Her countless innovative works include the cookbooks Pok Pok, Manresa, and Heidi Swanson's Super Natural series. Toni will art direct and design Unforgettable. "When I was approached to contribute to this project, I jumped at the chance," Toni says. "The opportunity to work with a culinary icon like Paula is incentive enough. To illuminate the challenges of a vibrant mind facing Alzheimer’s, I knew it would be nothing short of inspiring." You can explore more of Toni's inspiring work at tonitajimadesign.com.
Andrea Nguyen is the Paula Wolfert of Asian cookery. Based in Northern California, she continues to build a critically-acclaimed library of authoritative books on the foods of Asia. From her first, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, to her latest, The Banh Mi Handbook, her work is widely admired by food cognoscenti for her exhaustive research and her commitment to authenticity and accessibility. Andrea will be my right hand on this project, as project manager, co-recipe tester and sounding board. “Writers like me exist because of people like Paula,” Andrea says. “She welcomed traditional cooks from around the world to the American table. This book is a rare chance for a close look at her amazing life and can-do spirit. And the recipes? They’re all keepers.” You can follow Andrea's culinary adventures at vietworldkitchen.com.
Risks and challenges
Writing a biographical cookbook about a woman diagnosed with memory loss has one major challenge: How long will Paula’s memories hold out for us to record them?
Over the last six years, Wolfert and Thelin have already conducted over 20 hours of interviews. Wolfert has been told by her doctors that her form of dementia should not have as much effect on her long-term memories. It’s also typically slow to progress. Wolfert is also doing all she can to keep her faculties sharp.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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