Foreword by Alice Waters
The Hell Out of Flatbush
Life as a Beatnik
Escape to Tangier
A Big and Empty Place
Searching for a New Country
On the Pepper Trail
Confidence in the Kitchen
Every Pot Tells a Story
Living for the Now
About the Author
Appendix: Seven Keys to Retrieving Food Memories
Paula’s Tips for Dementia Worriers and Warriors
Three Facts about the Science of Flavor and Memory
Six Lessons from Cooking Paula Wolfert’s Recipes
An Unforgettable Larder
The Complete Works of Paula Wolfert
To the 1,112 people who
supported our crowdfunding campaign
to make this book possible,
your generosity and faith are truly unforgettable.
“Good food is memory.”
by Alice Waters
FROM THE TIME I DEVOURED Paula Wolfert’s extraordinary first book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, and then started cooking from it, I have been convinced that she is simply one of those rare people who know the exact way food should be. This book beautifully demonstrates her irresistible food, set out on the table the way I like to see it, the way I like to eat it, the way it should be eaten.
Always with Paula, every element was thoroughly researched and thought out, tested over and over, clearly and logically recorded, and beautifully executed.
Throughout her career, over and over, Paula has given us hope by serving us recipes that partake of this kind of simplicity—even those recipes of hers that are the most exacting and time-consuming—surprising us again and again with the generosity and breadth of her curiosity and the precision and focus of her perfectionism; surprising us, while skillfully steering us past the shallows of food fashion into the deep harbors of ancient food traditions that depend on such timeless values as patience, frugality, loyalty, and community, values that are inimical to the fast-food values that pervade the modern world.
Emily Kaiser Thelin and her extraordinary collaborators, Eric Wolfinger, Andrea Nguyen, and Toni Tajima, have gifted us with an inspiring and beautiful book: a critical survey of a very public career, an anthology of wonderful recipes, and an intimate biography of a brave and complicated person who is now facing the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease with the same shrewd appetite for understanding that she brought to all her researches into food and cooking. By her pioneering example she continues to be a worthy mentor to us all.
IN AN IMPOSSIBLY NARROW LANE in the crowded ancient medina of Marrakech, a motor scooter zipped past, a horned ram bleating between the driver’s legs, bound for sacrifice for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. I jumped to get out of the way and promptly collided with a family headed home for the holiday, a small lamb chewing on weeds while straddling the shoulders of the man. I cinched my coat tighter against the wet, cold December day and pushed on against the crowds.
It was December 2008. I had come to Morocco on an assignment for Food & Wine to profile legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, a longtime contributor to the magazine whom I had edited as a staffer there since 2006. This was the culinary equivalent of a journey through the Arabian dunes with T. E. Lawrence or a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers—the chance to tour the place where a titan of my field first made her name. She and I had met in person only twice before, once at a food conference and then for lunch at her house in Sonoma. She had returned to Morocco because her publisher, HarperCollins, had suggested she update her first book, the 1973 landmark Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.
In Couscous, Paula writes how Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, “occurs on the tenth day of the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar year and commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Every Moroccan tries to get hold of a sheep… a kid or, if he is very poor, a fowl. The point is to make a sacrifice and then enjoy it.” As a resident of Morocco in the late 1960s, she purchased and fattened her own live lamb for the holiday and, working from a cookbook published by House & Garden magazine—decades before DIY butchery—taught herself to cut up the carcass. Any odd bits that she’d butchered badly, she chopped to make kefte, delicious Moroccan meatballs.
I had been looking forward to this trip for months, but when I arrived, Paula e-mailed profuse apologies that she had been delayed and wouldn’t be able to join me until the next day. I wandered the medina alone—for as long as I could stand it. I loved it but felt I might drown in the riptide of rams, goats, carpet sellers, spice merchants, and charcoal smoke. I retreated to the rooftop café of my hotel to sip hot mint tea.
When we met the next morning, the holiday was over. The rams and goats were gone, but the crowds were denser than ever. Paula tucked her bobbed chestnut hair behind her ears, linked her arm in mine, and together we traversed the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s vast central square. Although the square teemed with people, the tension I had felt the day before melted away. She led me first to the best stall for merguez sausages, where men stood working the open-air grills, the sweet scents of paprika, cumin, and grilled lamb infusing the smoke.
“You can tell this stall is good because so many Moroccans have lined up for it,” she observed. To anyone who tried to sell us something we didn’t want, she smiled and sang out, “La, barak Allahu fik!” Even to my untrained ear, Paula’s Arabic sounded surprisingly poor, her consonants blunted by her Brooklyn edge, her vowels as broad as a Texas cowboy’s. But she put feeling into it. Hearing her, sellers burst out laughing and gave us a wide swath. What had she said to them? I wondered, because the day before, nothing I did or said in any language could buy me a minute’s peace.
“It means ‘God will grant you every wish if you leave me alone.’ It’s only used in Morocco,” she revealed with her characteristic mirth. “They can’t believe a Westerner knows it.”
We headed to another stall for mechoui, Marrakech-style roast lamb. She sailed up to the wizened old operator, laid a hand on his arm, and proceeded to pepper him with questions in English, French, and Arabic about how he prepared it. I feared he might be insulted by the examination, but as her questions grew ever more detailed, down to the kind of cumin he used, he burst into a delighted grin.
“You know our food!” he exclaimed, and hugged her.
Paula Wolfert may be the most influential cookbook author you’ve never heard of. It’s a food biography cliché to claim that the subject changed the way we eat—except Paula really did, in ways that have gone overlooked by many people until now. She never had a restaurant. She never had a television show. But over nearly four decades, from 1973 to 2011, she published eight seminal cookbooks, three reissues, and countless articles on the traditional foods of the Mediterranean. Her work had a quiet but incalculable influence on our grocery shelves and on our approach to cooking. She helped popularize foods we now take for granted: the couscous, preserved lemons, and tagines of Morocco; the duck confit and cassoulet of France; and the muhammara (Syrian red pepper–nut spread), sumac, pomegranate molasses, and mild red pepper flakes—Aleppo, Marash, and Urfa—of the Middle East. But more, she legitimized a basic approach to cooking that all good chefs now embrace: a respect and reverence for foods of tradition and place.
Paula in her home kitchen in the 1970s.
When Paula started in the 1970s, she was one of a generation of cookbook authors who worked in the wake of Julia Child’s 1963 Mastering the Art of French Cooking to introduce Americans to yet more authentic international cuisines. She joined women like Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, and Diana Kennedy, who championed genuine Italian, Indian, and Mexican cooking, respectively.
But three qualities put Paula in a class by herself: her curiosity, her rigor, and her vision.
After publishing Couscous in 1973, Paula did not stay long in Morocco—or in any country. Her inquisitiveness kept her moving: to Southwest France, to Spanish Catalonia, to Sicily, to the Middle East. She ultimately circled the Mediterranean many times, helping introduce the very concept of Mediterranean cuisine to the American culinary mainstream. A marketing consultant might have warned her that she was watering down her brand by refusing to stay in one place. But her favorite settings were places of discovery—uncharted territory, overlooked ingredients, whatever everyone else couldn’t see. As she liked to put it, “All my life I’ve been drawn to The Other.”
In her explorations, she showed an unusual ability to bond quickly with women home cooks (and chefs of both genders) all over the Mediterranean, coaxing from them their most cherished recipes and cooking secrets. She included her favorite finds in her books. Though she often finessed them to polish their flavors, she never dumbed them down.
By refusing to apologize for obscure ingredients or complex techniques, she challenged Americans to become better cooks. Her rigor ensured her obscurity; for years, mainstream cooks found her books too challenging. (Some of her most iconic recipes are indeed complicated. Her instructions for cassoulet, first published in Food & Wine magazine in 1978, go on for pages and call for six kinds of pork.)
But her exactitude made her a hero to our most forward-thinking chefs. Julia Child called her “one of the few food writers whose recipes I trust.” Thomas Keller told me that Paula’s “fortitude,” her refusal to dilute a recipe or its history, makes her work “relevant for generations of professional chefs and home cooks.” Alice Waters says Paula’s books altered the menus at Chez Panisse many times, and helped her articulate the idea of treating vegetables as a main dish. Jerusalem-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi describes Paula as having “paved the way to Morocco for so many of us.” Pioneering Italian chef Mario Batali credits her with introducing the very idea of authenticity to an America that had little interest in epicurean traditions. “She’s a lot of fun to have a drink with, too,” he added. Few cookbook authors enjoy the devotion of such vaunted chefs.
She was a visionary who saw where American food trends were going often decades before they occurred. She has a reputation as a free spirit who wrote books according to her whims. But she cannily positioned each one to offer something new. Her scouting put her further and further ahead. Only now have some of her best finds caught on, like foraged greens and Aleppo peppers. In no small part thanks to her, duck confit is currently available at Costco. To paraphrase historian Ron Chernow on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, she was a messenger from a future we now inhabit.
And yet Paula is little known outside an elite circle. As a line cook in the late 1990s, I had never heard of her when a chef who was teaching me how to make a Moroccan carrot salad said she had adapted it from Couscous. When I asked who Paula Wolfert was, she pulled me off of the line and into her office, pushed the book into my hands, and insisted that I read it that night. At home, I stared at the photo of Paula on the back and wondered at her fortitude. Who was this woman who’d had the bravery to master three hundred years of one country’s cooking, to become the first to codify that cuisine in English?
In 2010, I left Food & Wine to move to California with my fiancé, now husband. By then, Paula lived in Sonoma, and as we became closer, I began to interview her for a potential biography. But something strange was going on with her mind.
She was known for her keen memory: At the peak of her career, she could re-create whole recipes from two scribbled lines. She could take one bite of a flatbread in Tunisia and compare the leavening to equivalents in Egypt, Turkey, Israel, or Algeria. In conversation, she could recall names of hundreds of friends she had made in her travels. She had also studied close to a dozen languages in order to converse with cooks she met throughout the Mediterranean. But now, at age seventy-two, she struggled to remember the basics of any of them. When she tried to read in English, she said, words floated on the page. Like everyone else who loved her, I dismissed it as a side effect of aging. Even her doctors told her nothing was wrong. Finally, in 2013, she received a diagnosis of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s.
When she told me, I felt as bleak as I had that first day in Marrakech without her. But characteristically, she bucked me up. “I refuse to feel sorry for myself,” she said. “This illness takes forever, and I’m determined to make it take as long as I can.” She then quoted her beloved grandmother, “You can’t win a war if you’re not willing to fight.”
As her editor at the magazine, I’d learned to parse out our phone calls like Halloween candy. They provided such pleasure, but I knew they could suck up a good part of the day. Before her diagnosis, she all but lived to talk about food but also about love, politics, reality television, life. Now in our calls she filled me in on her strategies for her illness.
In a strange way, dementia is today where food was when Paula began her culinary career: we don’t know what we don’t know, and we might pay dearly for our ignorance. Research into its prevention, treatment, and cure is woefully underfunded when compared with what goes toward conquering other major diseases, such as cancer and AIDS. Yet more and more Americans are succumbing to dementia as the population lives longer.
“More of us will have to ‘come out’ to fight for a cure,” she said. “But too many are afraid.”
Paula’s illness inspired me to act. I sent out a proposal to write her biography to nearly a dozen publishers. A consensus emerged among them: her story was interesting but her time had passed.
So I took a page from Paula’s renegade example and banded together with three gifted food professionals: photographer Eric Wolfinger, book designer Toni Tajima, and author Andrea Nguyen, who served as editor. We have assembled this culinary biography to honor Paula’s incredible life and to highlight her contributions to American epicurean history. Thanks to our Kickstarter campaign, more than eleven hundred of her fans and colleagues funded our endeavor. Paula donated her recipes and opened her personal archive, which included articles both by her and about her, plus many letters, faxes, and e-mails.
When we started in 2011, Paula was already having memory trouble. But she had many prompts in her cookbooks and archives to help us. We took enormous pleasure in preparing dishes for her, which provoked more surprising recollections. Those kitchen forays also reminded us of what an unforgettable adventure cooking Paula’s recipes can be.
Choosing which recipes to include proved much harder. Paula had published upward of a thousand, which had been curated from more than ten thousand dishes she had tasted on the road. How I yearned to include, for example, her romantic éclade de moules from The Cooking of Southwest France, which involves igniting fistfuls of fresh pine shoots in a wide forest clearing, or her fanciful egg omelet with hop shoots from Mediterranean Grains and Greens, though I’ve never seen a hop shoot in my life.
Ultimately, I followed Paula’s criteria, which she expressed eloquently and practically in her fourth book, Paula Wolfert’s World of Food: “When I develop recipes, I always look for ways to create what I call the Big Taste… food that is deeply satisfying, and that appeals to all the senses. I like dishes that leave their flavor with me, whose tastes and aromas I will never forget.”
This cookbook is not a Greatest Hits of Paula Wolfert’s cookery, as there are far too many of them. These are the recipes that celebrate Paula’s life and the ideas and foods she cherishes. The book is organized chronologically, and many of the chapters include recipes to help illustrate her discoveries. Many of the recipes are in line with her new diet—a regimen nourishing for anyone, not just dementia sufferers. But they were primarily selected because they tell her story. Menus are suggested to help explain the choices, but they are optional, as each recipe is equally delicious on its own. Ultimately, I chose stories and recipes that I hope you will always remember.
Paula and the author, May 2016
Paula as an infant, 1938
The Hell Out of Flatbush
NEW YORK 1938 to 1955
“I live in a dark, fearful world. I have a photo of myself from when I was only five days old that I’ve studied carefully, and that look is already there in my eyes—that look of apprehension. Sure, I venture into the wilds of Dagestan, and cross deserts, and risk the backroads of Syria as a Jew, but no matter where I go or what I do, I’m frightened—of exactly what, I never know.”
—Paula Wolfert, quoted in James Villas’s Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist
I SAW PAULA WOLFERT for the first time in 2005. Circled by a cluster of admirers, she was standing near the back of an auditorium at a conference at the Napa campus of the Culinary Institute of America. I immediately recognized her from her books. A young freelance writer, I nervously approached, then was startled to realize she looked more nervous than I. She clearly didn’t know anyone to whom she was speaking, and her brown eyes revealed a vulnerability and a tentativeness that belied her decades of experience. I had an impulse to reach out with a calming hand. But when I introduced myself, she smiled warmly and touched my arm with her soft palm, instead reassuring me.
Paula’s profound contrasts—her fear and boldness, her affection and rigor—were seeded in her childhood, but not for reasons you might expect. Born Paula Miriam Harris on April 7, 1938, she was the eldest daughter of Sam and Frieda Harris, a comfortably middle-class Jewish couple who lived in the comfortably middle-class Jewish section of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush.
Mel Blanc, the original voice of Bugs Bunny, said he modeled the character’s voice on a Flatbush accent. Set in the heart of the borough, the neighborhood was home to an eclectic mix of strictly segregated groups: Jews, Italians, Irish Catholics, and Dutch Protestants. (Flatbush, from the Dutch for “flat woodland,” was settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century.) In her first years, Paula knew only the Jewish part of town, its high-rises and its many other middle-class Jewish families. Paula had a younger sister and brother, but until she was five, she was an only child. Her father managed several Harlem hotels and was said to be able to get along with anybody. He may also have given Paula some of his entrepreneurial spirit. Her mother, Frieda, was a housewife who valued good looks over adventure; from Paula’s earliest years she and her mother did not get along.
With her parents, Sam and Frieda Harris, on a summer road trip, c. 1941
For much of her childhood, Paula struggled to fit in. She was born walleyed, her right eye turned outward from her left. Her parents took her to a preeminent ophthalmologist, who said he could correct the problem cosmetically with surgery, though she had to wait until she turned sixteen. Today her eyes appear normal, but she has never had stereoscopic vision, so she lacks depth perception. Her left eye is farsighted, her right eye nearsighted. When she is particularly nervous or excited, she cannot fully control which eye her brain uses to see.
Her personality, even now, mirrors this unusual split. Especially when she is keyed up, she flips back and forth from near to far and back again: from infectious warmth to bristling impatience, vulnerability to boldness, anger to joy, boredom to intense engagement. To a certain extent, she knows her own extremes. For example, she chose “soumak” (a Slavic spelling of sumac) for her e-mail and Twitter handle because the Mediterranean spice can be either “very sweet, or poisonous,” she said with a delighted cackle. That range is part of what makes her so magnetic—and may have made her a handful growing up.
In the years before the surgery to align her eyes, she came up with strategies to compensate for her strange appearance. To win over wary strangers, she developed a disarming warmth and a vocal range that could swing from booming life of the party to intimate whisper, the better to draw people in. As an adult, she created workarounds for her visual impairments. Incredibly for someone so accomplished in the kitchen, all her life she avoided chef’s knives. Even as an adult, she avoided any kitchen tasks that required depth perception, from chopping herbs with a chef’s knife to flipping an omelet in a pan, knowing she could hurt herself. “I was very scared of big knives, of my fingers getting in the way,” she admits.
But as a child, the kitchen didn’t interest her much. She didn’t eat well growing up. In keeping with the dominant food culture of postwar America, her childhood home was not big on traditional flavors. Everything was “boiled or broiled,” Paula has joked—if it was cooked at all. Her mother preferred to diet. “I grew up on melon, iceberg lettuce, and cottage cheese,” Paula has often said. Perhaps because the pickings were so slim, she had little appetite as a kid and was regarded as skinny. To fatten her up, Frieda strangely gave her orange juice.
With her mother c. 1941
In 1943, when she was five, Paula experienced good food for the first time. In a setting that may have inspired her entire career, she learned to equate good food with love. Her mother sent her to stay with her paternal grandparents, Bertha and Max Harris, who then lived in rural New Jersey. Paula does not know why she was sent away, and no one else who might remember is alive, but that year Frieda was pregnant with Paula’s little sister, and she may have lacked the stamina to keep up with her enthusiastic firstborn.
Paula’s grandparents had emigrated from the Balkans in the early 1900s and had never much assimilated (beyond their last name, which was Americanized at Ellis Island from Himowitz). They came from the Romanian and Serbian sides of the Danube River and still spoke to each other in Romanian. They understood English well enough to listen to radio shows, however, and tuned in almost every day, as they lay on their bed with Paula between them. She loved to feel the warmth and shaking of their bellies as they laughed at the best jokes. They doted on her, getting her a pet goat when they discovered she was afraid of dogs. In their Victory Garden, they gave Paula her first Technicolor tastes of freshly harvested vegetables like eggplants and red peppers, many of them seldom seen in 1940s grocery stores. In the kitchen, Bertha introduced her to the earthiness and gentle spice of Balkan dishes like ajvar (recipe, here), an eggplant relish, and ćevapčiči (recipe, here), small sausages. Paula’s earliest culinary memory is of her grandmother slowly cooking eggplants on the stove. Balkan cooking blends many elements from the Mediterranean: North African, southern European, and Turkish, among other cuisines. These memories were seared into Paula’s brain, fueling her entire career, though she wasn’t yet aware of their impact.
With her grandmother, Bertha Harris, in her Victory Garden in New Jersey, c. 1943
Before this book project, Paula often boasted to me that she had published more eggplant recipes than any other cookbook author she knew. I asked for the one that had started her love of nightshade vegetables, but she couldn’t recall her grandmother’s recipe, until September 2015. We were in the midst of this book project when one of Paula’s longtime friends, cookbook author Diana Kennedy, sent her a manuscript for her memoir that, by chance, included a recipe for ajvar, the Serbian eggplant and bell pepper spread. Paula made the dish, only to realize it tasted eerily close to the relish her grandmother had made.
“This is really crazy!!!” Paula e-mailed me. “I knew my grandmother’s dish, but never its proper name.”
What was even crazier, as a picture in her e-mail showed, Paula had published her own recipe for ajvar forty years earlier, in her second book, Mediterranean Cooking, but never made the connection to her grandmother. She had learned it in the 1960s from a woman in Yugoslavia who used green bell peppers, not red ones like Bertha did. Paula’s palate is so precise that such a seemingly minor difference might well have prevented her from recognizing the link. Ajvar is also a Serbian term; her grandmother spoke Romanian. It’s possible that Bertha called the spread zacuscă, a term Paula only recently found online.
As a five-year-old, Paula adored her grandmother’s relish as an unusually delicious treat. She speculates that she might have liked it because the dish tasted so much more complex than its few humble ingredients—a tenet of all Paula’s recipes. “I think I loved it because two plus two equaled so much more than four,” she said.
Landing on Kennedy’s ajvar recipe gave her new energy. For several weeks after her initial discovery, Paula tinkered with Kennedy’s version to see if she could bring it even closer to her memories of Bertha’s. As she worked, her family remarked they had not seen her so happy in the kitchen in years.
I was happy, too. Just as she had done when I was her editor, she crowded my inbox with revision after revision, each one looking more delicious. Finally, at our next photo shoot, she showed me how she made the spread. She grilled the eggplants and peppers over low coals until they collapsed, peeled them, then worked them to a pulp with her bare hands (see photo on here). “Can you see why this would have gotten a little girl excited?” she asked. Then she seasoned the pulp with a heady mix of crushed garlic, cider vinegar, paprika, salt, and pepper. It tasted wonderful. Moreover, I had rarely seen Paula so at ease while cooking anything.
Despite her forty years as a food authority, Paula has never relaxed in the kitchen. She’s too much of a perfectionist. The only time I’d seen her that comfortable was in Morocco, when she found a good cook to teach her a dish she had read about, chaariya meftoun, short noodles steamed like couscous, often served with a stew. She had written a brief description of it in her first book but wanted to see it made after watching a YouTube video of Moroccan cooking star Choumicha preparing it, a viewing that convinced Paula it was going to be the next hot dish. Before we left the States, we contacted a dozen people in the hope of finding someone to help us, to no avail.
But Paula has magical good luck. After landing in Marrakech, she left her ATM card in the airport bank machine. The next person in line recognized her name; the woman’s American parents had raised her in Morocco and had cooked from Couscous. “Let me know if I can help with anything during your stay,” she insisted. A few days later, striking out in our hunt for chaariya, Paula e-mailed her. “Yes,” the woman wrote back, “my Berber housekeeper makes an excellent version. Come for lunch.”
When we pulled up to the woman’s suburban development, I was skeptical. But then the housekeeper, Malika, greeted us at the door dressed in a bright blue silk Berber tunic. “I think this is going to be good,” Paula said. “You can tell she cares.”
What followed was a master class in how Paula gets her recipes. In the kitchen, which was scented with Malika’s freshly ground spices, Paula pulled out her notebook but didn’t write much down; instead, she peppered Malika with questions: Where was her saffron from, her cumin, her almonds? And where was she from, and how had she learned so much about cooking? Malika opened up about her almonds but also her recent struggles to support her family, how before she’d found this job she’d worked as a janitor at a school, her young son strapped to her back. Malika and Paula joked, they hugged. Paula gave her a tomato peeler as a thank-you gift. By the time the noodles steamed, they seemed like grandmother and granddaughter. Moreover, a kind of otherworldly, almost holy glow pulsed in the room. Paula started to cry. We all started to cry.
“That’s how I wrote all of my books!” Paula said. “Hugging, kissing, and measuring spoons.”
I suspect that Paula’s cookbooks are so exceptional because she bonds with good food the way she bonds with her favorite people, like her grandmother. The best dishes are synonymous with love itself.
“To me, good food is memory,” Paula once told food writer Peggy Knickerbocker. “One time or another, I’ve had a fling with each of the recipes in my books.”
Paula could only stay with her grandparents that one year. In 1944, when she was six and back in Flatbush, she resumed a diet of orange juice, cottage cheese, iceberg lettuce, and broiled meat—with occasional forays for Chinese food, or for oysters, surf and turf, and cheesecake (recipe, here) at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay. Paula also met her new sister, Ruby, born in Paula’s absence, whom their mother seemed to like better. That year, Paula tried to get rid of Ruby by pushing her down the stairs. It’s possible her jealousy of Ruby inspired her lifelong fear of being replaced. When sororicide didn’t work, she launched a campaign to escape her family.
At age seven, after her grandparents moved to Manhattan, she ran away to their midtown apartment by riding the subway. Her grandmother lovingly played along, “hiding” her in the basement and telling her she’d feed her onion sandwiches. (“They’ll smell me out!” the young Paula protested.) But that night Bertha took her back to Brooklyn. Concerned about her reckless behavior, her mother sent her to a preeminent psychiatrist, a relative, who told her parents, “She’s a renegade. Do not worry about her.”
At age eleven, Paula fled the Jewish section of Flatbush to explore her first foreign country: the Irish Catholic neighborhood around the corner. She swiftly befriended several girls, joining their tours of the neighborhood Irish bars to bring their fathers home for supper. Compared to her block of cookie-cutter brick high-rises, she loved the exotic landscape of low-slung bungalows, laundry hanging on the line, and chickens in a few of the backyards. The ornate baroque Catholic church, with its incense-laden Latin Mass, proved a particular draw. “It was so gaudy compared to the boring synagogue,” she said. “I loved it! And I wanted to learn everything about it!”
Within six months, with guidance from her friends and the church priest, Paula had taken enough catechism classes to convert to Catholicism. She completed three of the rituals leading up to conversion that Easter, when she was baptized, confirmed, and took her first communion (and ate the communion wafer, her initial culinary adventure in the church).
“It didn’t taste like the body of Christ, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “They warn you it might stick to the inside of your mouth because you can’t chew. It certainly wasn’t salty. But it was all very exciting.”
But before she could complete the final steps to convert, her mother found out and brought a halt to Paula’s plan. It is likely Paula’s primary goal was to stick it in the eye of her secular Jewish parents, particularly her mother. Frieda sent her to another preeminent psychologist, her cousin’s cousin. Paula didn’t care for him but found that as long as she went twice a week, her mother left her alone. Preteen Paula was quickly proving herself to be highly unconventional and doggedly curious.
Paula wasn’t just a sensualist yearning for transcendence, however. She also had incredible drive. Research soothed her anxieties. Unable to escape physically, she dove into books. It helped that her father recognized his daughter’s keen mind: In 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt died, Sam encouraged his eight-year-old daughter to write down her thoughts. When she was a preteen, he encouraged her cultural curiosities by buying her anthropology books, such as Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict. Paula devoured Benedict’s pioneering work alongside her Nancy Drew books.
With her father c. 1947
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Paula left her school grounds and raced to the nearby public library to learn everything she could about the land, feeling keenly betrayed by her teachers who had never taught her about the place. She hated to be kept from the truth. Her grandmother’s one flaw, Paula discovered, was that Bertha sometimes told tall tales, like the one about how bears were brought into her village from the countryside and the local men would lie down on the animals to absorb their strength. Was this true? Paula yearned to visit the Balkans to find out. While researching the region in her beloved public library, Paula discovered stories of Balkan bards called gusle players. In the Homeric tradition, the blind singers recited tales of heroism, the telling lasting for hours, even days. If they sensed the audience growing bored, they tweaked their tales to reengage them. (These bards influenced Paula’s imagination so much that she became something of a food lover’s gusle player: she can talk about food for hours, and on the rare occasions when she senses she’s losing an audience, she’s willing to embroider her epic tales.) She taught herself rudimentary Serbian and pledged to see the gusle players of Montenegro and Macedonia on their home ground.
In her early teens, Paula met a veritable partner in crime while exploring another nearby congregation, the Dutch Reformed church across from her school. One Halloween, while playing in the church graveyard, she encountered Loretta Foye, a Dutch Irish girl from the remote Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook who swiftly became her best friend and math tutor. “Red Hook was really exotic,” Paula recalls. “I would have never graduated from high school if Loretta hadn’t gotten me through algebra and trigonometry.” Loretta was also two years older and was enrolled at Columbia University when Paula was still a sophomore at Erasmus Hall, Flatbush’s acclaimed public high school. But they stayed in touch, and Paula started to dream of following her friend to Manhattan.
Then Paula’s parents gave her the worst possible news: at the end of her junior year, the family would be moving to the suburbs of Westchester, north of Manhattan. If she moved with them, she would have to spend her senior year in an even duller and more homogeneous place than Flatbush. “I wanted so much to be in New York City,” she said. “The suburbs just weren’t part of my scenario.” When she was fifteen, she even found a German boyfriend who lived in Manhattan, in Yorkville. She came up with a cunning solution to the Westchester move: after both her sophomore and junior years, she enrolled in summer school classes and was able to graduate a year and a semester early.
After she turned sixteen in April 1954, she underwent the long-awaited surgery to align her eyes cosmetically. In January of the following year, she graduated from high school. Since Barnard College wouldn’t take students at midyear, she enrolled at Columbia University’s School of General Studies and chose English as her major. She took a room at a women’s boardinghouse in Greenwich Village. In Manhattan, she finally discovered like-minded souls: the Beats.
Paula’s family at the dinner table in 1952, celebrating her brother’s first birthday. LEFT TO RIGHT: Frieda, Paula, Ruby, Howard (in high chair), grandparents Bertha and Max, and father Sam.
Paula’s Childhood Favorites
Paula’s earliest years were not crammed with delicious foods. On the contrary, she grew up on a regimen dominated by 1950s diet foods and orange juice—except the year she turned five, when she lived with her grandparents. Her grandmother, Bertha Harris, had a limited but loving repertoire of Balkan dishes, with their layered, lingering flavors deeply rooted in tradition, made a lifelong impression on her granddaughter. The first two dishes here reflect that influence. The cheesecake reminds her of one she enjoyed at Lundy’s, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where her parents took her and her siblings on special occasions.
FIRST COURSE OR SIDE
Makes about 2 to 2½ cups (about 550 g)
The spread can be refrigerated for up to 1 week (its flavor improves daily).
Proust had madeleines; Paula Wolfert has eggplants. Her love of nightshades was seeded in her childhood, and this is her best guess at her grandmother’s recipe for a Balkan eggplant spread she often made when Paula was growing up. Tangy and only faintly garlicky, it’s an ideal accompaniment to just about anything: grilled skewered meats (like the sausages that follow), grilled fish or vegetables, or spread on bread in a turkey or tofu sandwich.
3 or 4 red sweet peppers, such as bell or Corno di Toro (about 4 ounces | 115 g each)
1 green bell or poblano pepper (about 4 ounces | 115 g)
2 eggplants (about 12 ounces | 350 g each; see notes)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
½ teaspoon flaky sea salt
¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping
1 tablespoon unfiltered cider vinegar
Heaping ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash (optional)
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Light a medium-low fire in a charcoal or gas grill. Set the red and green peppers and the eggplant on the grill and cook slowly, turning occasionally, until they are nicely charred on all sides and soft to the point of collapsing, about 30 minutes. As they finish cooking, transfer the vegetables to a large bowl, cover with a plate or plastic wrap, and let steam and cool.
Using your fingers or a paring knife, peel the eggplant and the peppers. Remove any large seed pockets in the eggplant, and then stem and seed the peppers. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl. Using your hands, pull the peppers and eggplant apart into chunks, then crush and massage them between your fingers to form a coarse paste. Set aside.
Using a mortar and pestle, the back of a heavy knife and a cutting board, or a mini food processor, crush together the garlic and salt, forming a paste. Add the garlic paste, olive oil, vinegar, black pepper, and the red pepper flakes and cayenne, if using, to the eggplant mixture and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more vinegar, salt, and black, red, and cayenne pepper if needed.
Transfer to a jar and top with a ¼-inch (6-mm) layer of olive oil. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least overnight before serving. Season lightly once more before serving.
NOTES The fresh red and green peppers can be charred on the stove top by setting them directly on a gas burner with the flame turned to medium-high and rotating them as they blacken. If the skin is fully charred but the flesh is not yet tender, transfer the peppers to a foil-lined sheet pan and bake in a 400°F (200°C) oven until soft to the point of collapsing, 10 to 25 minutes longer, depending on the thickness of the peppers.
The eggplants can be cooked in a 400°F (200°C) oven; pierce them a few times with a sharp knife, set them on a foil-lined sheet pan, and bake until soft to the point of collapsing, 30 to 40 minutes.
From her many years of cooking with eggplants, Paula has found the best-tasting ones, especially for grilling or roasting whole, each weigh about 12 ounces (350 g) and feel firm to the touch.
Makes 20 sausages, enough to serve 4 to 6
Although she didn’t know it when her grandmother made these sausages for her, Paula was tasting her future: Ćevapčići (pronounced Che-VAHP-chi-cee) is a diminutive of the word ćevap, or sausage; common to many Slavic languages, it comes from the Persian word kabāb. Paula published dozens of kebab, köfte, and kibbe recipes from around the Mediterranean—plus an Indonesian version of meat on skewers, beef satay (recipe, here).
These small sausages are gently spiced with paprika, red pepper flakes, and garlic, threaded on skewers, and quickly grilled. Club soda makes them light and silky. When Paula was a child, her grandmother would offer these sausages with ajvar (recipe, here) as well as sour cream for drizzling on top, chopped onions for sprinkling, and puffy flatbreads called lebenje.
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
¾ teaspoon flaky sea salt
1½ pounds (675 g) ground beef, preferably 80 percent lean
1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera picante)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash
3 tablespoons (45 ml) club soda
OPTIONAL FOR SERVING
Soft, fluffy pitas (such as pide), Ajvar (here), Turkish Yogurt Sauce (here), thinly sliced red onion half-moons
Using a mortar and pestle, the back of a heavy knife and a cutting board, or a mini food processor, crush together the garlic and salt, forming a paste. Transfer the garlic to a large bowl and add the beef, paprika, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Using your fingertips, gently rub the seasonings into the meat, distributing them evenly. Using a rubber spatula, gradually fold in the club soda until a smooth consistency is achieved.
Dampen your hands with water and form the meat into 20 sausages, each about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter and 3 inches (7.5 cm) long. They should look like short, chubby hot dogs.
You may pack each sausage around a skewer (if using bamboo skewers and a charcoal or gas grill, be sure to soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes before using). But it is also fine to grill them without skewers.
Light a medium-high fire in a charcoal or gas grill, preheat a stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat, or preheat the broiler. Grill or broil the sausages, turning them a few times, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes total. Serve the sausages hot or warm with the bread, Ajvar, yogurt sauce, and onion, if desired.
NOTE To vary the flavor, use a mixture of two parts ground beef to one part pork (or lamb) instead of all beef and cook for 6 to 8 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8
Paula has never had much of a sweet tooth and always struggled to find enough favorite desserts for the sweets chapters in her cookbooks. But she fondly remembers the cheesecake at Lundy’s restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, one of her family’s favorite spots when she was growing up. She never learned the restaurant’s recipe, but she says this crustless ricotta cheesecake recipe (from her book Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking) reminds her of it. She learned this recipe many years later, at a restaurant called La Villa on the island of Corsica.
You can make this in a glass pie plate instead of clay, but the earthenware both insulates the cheesecake and absorbs excess moisture, which prevents cracking. Baked in glassware, the cheesecake may form a crack or two on its surface, but it will taste equally delicious. Dot a few fresh berries over any cracks, and no one will ever know.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 large eggs
½ cup (100 g) sugar
1 pound (450 g) whole-milk ricotta, preferably sheep’s milk
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of flaky sea salt
2 tablespoons poire Williams, eau-de-vie de Mirabelle, or dark rum
Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Grease a 9- or 10-inch (22.5- to 25-cm) cazuela, tagine base, or glass pie plate with the butter.
In a food processor, combine the eggs and sugar and process until light and creamy, about 20 seconds. Add the ricotta, lemon zest, vanilla, and salt and process until smooth and thick. Scrape the filling into the prepared cooking vessel.
Bake until puffed but still a bit wiggly in the center, about 20 minutes. Turn off the oven and, without opening the oven door, let the cake finish baking in the receding heat for 20 minutes. It will lose its puffiness and its surface will turn a lush golden brown. Remove the cake from the oven, sprinkle the top with the poire Williams, and let cool for about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm.
Paula in 1955
Life as a Beatnik
NEW YORK 1955 to 1959
PAULA IS A DILIGENT RESEARCHER AND COLLECTOR. For this book project, she handed me boxes filled with clippings, notebooks, ephemera, and other clues on the cultural and culinary trends that mattered to her. While perusing these archives to find out about her beatnik years, I found an article she had printed out about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Paula had underlined the following passage, which doubles as a motto for this period—and for the rest of her life:
Hitchhiking is spontaneous prose. It’s a form of winging it and just knowing that you’re going to meet the person or you’re going to find the junction up ahead where it all makes sense. And it doesn’t make sense right now, but that’s all right, just keep on moving.
In January 1955, sixteen-year-old Paula arrived at Columbia University, primed for adventure. Allen Ginsberg wouldn’t publish Howl until 1956, and Jack Kerouac wouldn’t release On the Road until the fall of 1957. Their works were in progress that January (and Kerouac was out of town) when she met Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and other players in the renegade, avant-garde beatnik scene. She found the Beats to be kindred spirits in their quest for authentic sensory experiences.
Paula didn’t just share their disenchantment with postwar consumerist American culture. She also liked writers. She wanted to express herself on the page, but her vision problems and natural impatience made it hard for her to organize her thoughts. Through the Beats, she would eventually find an even more renegade career path for a woman in the 1950s: restaurant chef.
At Columbia, she barely went to class. At night, she and her Brooklyn friend Loretta donned black leotards, tights, and flats—accessories for the right Beat look. If their local West End Bar was too full of Sarah Lawrence girls, they’d hitch a ride on a motorcycle or in a taxi to the White Horse Tavern in the Village. She recalled, “We were like pilot fish, looking around for larger things to happen to us.” Long into the night they smoked and talked literature and philosophy, and flirted. Paula was fascinated; she had never heard such intellectual conversations before. Although it would later annoy her that the men talked over the women, at first she didn’t notice.
To fund their nights out, Paula helped Loretta run a weekly poker game out of Loretta’s apartment, the two of them sharing a cut from each of the betting pots. Loretta put Paula in charge of snacks. Paula knew so little about cooking that, on Loretta’s advice, she acted boldly. “I threw a pot roast into a hot oven for a half hour and called it roast beef,” she recounted.
But even among the Beats, Paula had conflicting desires. She loved the rebel life, but she also wanted to marry a smart, good-looking guy with an Ivy League degree and earning potential. “I went to college to earn my MRS,” she often joked. One day she clarified, “You have to understand, this was the 1950s, the last time that men were the breadwinners, women were the housewives. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I wanted to get married because that was how I thought I’d get on with my life.” She wanted to do what was expected of her in order to explore options for the unexpected.
In June 1957, a friend of a friend, a dashing aspiring writer named Michael Wolfert, walked into the West End and slid into her booth. Shy and sensitive, he whispered when he spoke, drawing his listeners in close. He had just graduated with honors from Harvard, with a double major in literature and government. Back when Harvard was still rumored to impose strict quotas on Jews, he was a major catch. Paula loved writers: Michael not only had his own novel in the works and a job on the copy desk at the New York Post but also a literary pedigree, with a Pulitzer Prize–winning father and a poet mother.
Michael shared Paula’s conflicting desires. He was a Communist sympathizer with the capitalist ambition to write the Great American Novel, earn a good living, and remain a member of the proletariat. He lived in the shadow of his charismatic father, Ira, a leftist war correspondent and novelist who hobnobbed with Hemingway in Spain. Michael wanted to live abroad and write novels as Ira had, and he was drawn to Paula’s fearlessness. “I was freer, and he was looking to be free,” she said.
Their courtship was swift. He read James Joyce’s Ulysses to her in bed; she told him about her beloved gusle players. He shared a new book about them by some Harvard professors and pledged to help her see them one day.
Six months later, in December 1957, they wed. She was nineteen and he was twenty-one. If that sounds young today, it was normal for the times. Paula chose to wear pink instead of white because, as she explained, “I didn’t think I was pure and I didn’t want anybody to think I was.” Her mother’s cousin, a Brooklyn rabbi, refused to perform the ceremony “because everyone knew I was this wildcat,” she said. A substitute was found.
Although they received several thousand dollars cash in wedding presents, they skipped a honeymoon to save the money for travel. “We wanted to see the world,” Paula said. They formed a loose plan to move to another capital of Beat life, Tangier, where the rent would be lower and Michael could finish his novel in the shadow of the great Beat writers there like Paul Bowles. To save more, Michael got a higher-paying job at a marketing firm and found them a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.
Paula finally had the freedom she had long craved. Yet she didn’t know what to do with it. She wanted to do something—she felt a bit jaded with life as a spectator to her husband’s Beat friends. If anything, their disregard for the women among them appears to have driven Paula to find a way to stand out. On her mother’s advice, she took a career aptitude test, which suggested she would be good with her hands. She bought some clay and some sculpting supplies and attempted a self-portrait. Embarrassed by the attempt, she threw out the clay and the supplies.
Then on New Year’s Day 1958, the new bride prepared her first meal. She turned to The Glamour Magazine After Five Cookbook (most likely a wedding gift from her mother). Typical of American postwar food, the recipes showed little regard for tradition, even flavor. With a newlywed’s naïveté, Paula turned to the menu for January 1: egg drop consommé, pork chops with bananas, and sugared pineapple. Per the pork recipe, she browned the chops and braised them in a mix of sour cream, sherry, and bananas. Disgusted with the results, she threw out the dish and the book and reported the fiasco to her mother. “If you’re going to keep that Harvard man, you have to learn to cook,” Paula remembered Frieda saying. Paula can’t recall exactly how she ended up there, but whether through an ad in the yellow pages or the advice of a friend, she found herself signing up for six classes at Dione Lucas’s cooking school.
Paula and Michael, far right, on their wedding day, December 15, 1957. Michael’s mother, far left; Paula’s father and mother, third and fourth from left.
Few know the name Dione Lucas today, but in the late 1950s, Paula could have hardly found a better teacher. Lucas was a kind of precursor to Julia Child, attempting to bring classic French cooking to the American masses via books and television. A New York Times story on her at the time said, “while more American cooks jump on the bandwagon for Redi-Mix cakes, Instant Meatballs and Heat ’n’ Gulp TV dinners, Dione Lucas, a small, indomitable figure, marches steadily in the opposite direction.” Lucas was the first woman to appear on an American cooking show and the first woman to be awarded a Grande Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu. Her technique was said to be unparalleled. She was justly famous for her omelets and at one time owned a popular Upper East Side restaurant called the Egg Basket.
Lucas held her classes at her elegant apartment in The Dakota, the iconic New York apartment building. Before each class commenced, she had her students change into house slippers, perhaps to protect the floors. With a schoolmarmish bun and manner, Lucas cut an intimidating figure. But she was generous with her charges. In those days, cooking classes were typically demonstrations, and the rarer participation classes called for a few students to work together on just part of a dish. Lucas gave each of her pupils the opportunity to cook an entire dish from start to finish alone, with her supervision.
Paula’s life changed during the class on sole Dugléré (recipe, here), an obscure but delicious nineteenth-century seafood dish invented by Parisian chef Adolphe Dugléré, who, according to Larousse Gastronomique, had studied under Carême, cooked for the Rothschilds, and invented pommes Anna. On completing the dish, Paula took one bite and realized what she needed to do: drop out of college and become a chef. “I loved its silky sauce,” she said. “The tomato flavor was so surprising to me. I had never had fish prepared like that before. It was so rustic and yet so elegant.”
When Paula and I cooked the dish together in 2015, it was clear that Lucas’s version of sole Dugléré was a kind of ur–Paula Wolfert preparation: layered with rich, often surprising flavors, its components each relied on techniques that seemed unorthodox, even somewhat questionable. I was convinced it would not work until everything finally came together. The pivotal dish also evoked her grandmother’s ajvar in its use of tomato and hot red pepper, ingredients that remained key throughout her career. As we worked in her home kitchen fifty-seven years later, Paula remembered both Lucas’s impeccable technique and her coldness. “That’s good,” she said approvingly. “But she was not a nice woman.”
Paula volunteered to become Lucas’s unpaid full-time assistant, then threw herself into her new métier. On Lucas’s recommendations, and with Michael’s encouragement, she spent hundreds of dollars of her and Michael’s wedding money on a batterie of pans and other equipment, including her first clay pot, a triperie for making tripe (photo, here). She started a small cookbook library, as Lucas advised, tracking down hard-to-find volumes by Elizabeth David and Henri-Paul Pellaprat (founder of Le Cordon Bleu and mentor to Lucas). In the evenings, she taught herself more recipes. Whether homemade sausage or fish set in its own aspic, none proved too daunting. The only challenge was using chef’s knives; her cosmetic eye surgery had not blessed her with depth perception, so she often cut herself (a New York Times story on Lucas’s classes mentions a Mrs. Wolfert being “rushed to the bathroom for first aid” after cutting herself while chopping a lobster). But she purchased two carbon-steel Sabatier chef’s knives and a cleaver she still owns (photo, here).
Finding ingredients proved to be another obstacle: in 1950s New York, only a few odd health food stores and European butchers sold the rarer cuts and fresh vegetables. Paula visited them all. If any technique questions came up, she brought them to Lucas the next day.
Lucas was full of knowledge, but she was not kind. Her unbending nature, however, fueled Paula’s perfectionism. Lucas once told Time magazine, “It’s best to cook a strudel when you feel mean. The beast stands or falls on how hard you beat it. If you beat the dough 99 times, you will have a fair strudel. If you beat it 100 times, you will have a good strudel. But if you beat it 101 times, you will have a superb strudel.”
“I used to quote her, ‘A cook follows a recipe. A chef improves it.’ That line really stuck with me,” Paula said.
By late 1958, Paula was told she needed gall bladder surgery—probably from eating all the butter and eggs. When she returned to The Dakota after her recovery, Lucas announced perfunctorily that she had hired a replacement and her services were no longer required. Paula was devastated.
Within a few months, however, Paula resourcefully turned to Lucas’s chief rival, James Beard, the second major food authority then working in America. Michael’s father, Ira Wolfert, published with Alfred A. Knopf, and his editor, Angus Cameron, was also Beard’s. In many ways Lucas’s foil, Beard was a natural writer and performer. Through books and television shows, he promoted the notion, still new in the United States, that cooking should be a pleasure—one that men could enjoy as much as women. Privately, he supported a tiny circle of Manhattan food writers and chefs by getting them work through his consulting and catering jobs. In the spring of 1958, Beard invited Paula to audition for him by cooking a three-course lunch at his Greenwich Village townhouse for himself and his friend, one of Paula’s newest cooking heroes, the food writer Paula Peck.
“So I knock on the door,” she said. “He knows I’m coming. But I did not know that he was gay.” Paula had plenty of gay friends among the Beats, but none in that crowd could prepare her for the food titan.
Even in ordinary attire, Beard stood out: he was well over six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds. At home he often wore flamboyant attire such as kimonos—or nothing at all. That day he had on an open-collared shirt with long, frilled cuffs and a number of gold chains draped over his chest. Paula held in her surprise as she quietly followed him into the living room, where they reviewed the menu. But Beard proved to be fun-loving and welcoming in every way Lucas was not, and Paula soon felt at ease.
The menu Beard planned for Paula’s audition revealed her mastery of 1950s cooking, though she was just one year into her new calling. Around this time, Beard’s doctors had discovered an irregular heartbeat and warned him to eat a healthier diet. But he evidently wasn’t interested in heeding their advice. He chose a first course of lobster bisque (“with two cups of cream,” Paula said), chicken Raphael for the main course (“three cups of cream and six egg yolks”), and a strawberry tart with crème pâtissière (even “more cream and eggs”). By then, she’d made the bisque and tart countless times for Lucas. Paula was unfamiliar with the 1910s American chicken dish but felt confident enough to figure it out.
Beard was so impressed with the meal that within weeks he dispatched Paula to her first catering gigs. At the Connecticut home of a Broadway director, she was to cater a lunch for 150. Paula had never cooked for so many, but Beard shared fail-safe recipes, including his Cognac-spiked walnut roll (recipe, here). When Paula arrived, however, the hostess, Mrs. Joshua Logan, was so shocked at her youthful appearance that she called out, “Oh my god, they’ve sent me a child!” and took to her bed, convinced that her luncheon was ruined. (“I looked about twelve at the time,” Paula admitted.) But Paula would not be daunted: she cleverly sent up a slice of the walnut roll and persuaded her otherwise.
In addition to Beard’s referrals, Paula also took on catering gigs of her own. Through Beat contacts she catered a Manhattan cocktail party where Jack Kerouac showed up. She served a Spanish tapas menu that included sizzling, garlicky shrimp (recipe, here). Kerouac came into the kitchen, glanced in her direction, and said, “Great legs.”
“I could hardly believe it,” Paula said, grinning at the memory. “Of course, I was serving whole shrimp [with the legs intact], so I didn’t know if he meant mine or theirs!”
When summer rolled around, Paula’s dream of becoming a professional restaurant chef came true. Beard got her a job as sous chef at Chillingsworth restaurant on Cape Cod. Paula moved to Massachusetts for the summer, and Michael came to visit her on weekends. Her chef was John Clancy, another of Beard’s protégés, an ex-marine admired for his strong French technique. His menu was straightforward, only a dozen dishes, most of them French classics like duck à l’orange and lobster à l’américaine. Clancy manned the hot line. Paula worked garde manger (the pantry station), where she oversaw salads, starters, and desserts. Since salad spinners hadn’t yet been invented, she spun the lettuce dry in a French wire basket in the gardens—and nearly threw out her shoulder. She also ladled out the soups, which included French onion and gazpacho garnished with a generous dollop of mayonnaise (a Beard recipe).
In August, the restaurant received a glowing review from the new restaurant critic at the New York Times, Craig Claiborne, who was friendly with Clancy. “To the residents of Cape Cod in search of imaginative food and relief from fish-net décor,” he wrote, “the East Brewster restaurant called Chillingsworth is heartily recommended.” He praised the canapés and gazpacho and found fault only with the “overly pungent” strips of orange rind in the duck sauce.
Then one day Clancy asked Paula to run the lunch line by herself. She should have aced it: lunch was all omelets, Dione Lucas’s specialty. But the rush hit and she panicked.
“Now, I prided myself on my omelets,” she said. “But then, twelve or twenty orders came in at once. I didn’t even know how to use the stoves to get twelve omelets going. I started to cry.”
Her eyes were part of the problem: She could never fully control which eye to use, especially in stressful situations. Clancy told her she wasn’t ready to be a chef. Although she finished the summer, she felt so worn down by August that she swore she’d never cook professionally again.
Paula neglected to mention any of this to her mentor. Back in New York, Beard was consulting for The Four Seasons, a new restaurant that would change American fine dining. Beard helped pick the debut chef, Albert Stöckli from Switzerland, and suggested Paula as garde manger cook. Stöckli agreed, but she turned down the position.
It is incredible to imagine that Paula got so close to becoming a line cook at The Four Seasons. I have mentioned this to many chefs, most of whom pointed out that had she had taken that job, she probably would have burned out on food altogether, and might never have written a single book.
As she remembered it, Beard was furious. She knew she was burning a bridge, but she was ready to explore new worlds. In the fall of 1959, ready to fulfill the plan to move to Tangier that they had formed at the start of their marriage, she and Michael boarded a Yugoslav freighter bound for Morocco. She felt sure they would never live in New York again.
In 1959, eager to leave New York for Tangier
Retro Dinner Party
As a young bride in the late 1950s, Paula got her start in food as a professional caterer and restaurant chef working under two of the greatest culinary minds of the era, Dione Lucas and James Beard. These three classics are a small sample of the many dishes she mastered.
Sizzling Shrimp with Garlic and Pimentón
Sizzling Shrimp with Garlic and Pimentón
Serves 4 to 6
As noted earlier, when Paula served these shrimp to Jack Kerouac at a 1959 Manhattan cocktail party, his response was, “great legs.” Though she likes to feign uncertainty about whether he meant the shrimp’s legs or hers, the compliment remained fresh in her memory nearly sixty years later.
In her book Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, she updated the recipe with guidance from Spanish food expert Janet Mendel. It’s one of Paula’s simplest: shell-on shrimp sautéed in nothing more than olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika), served with the heady oil in which they’re cooked. The shrimp don’t sizzle as much as, say, fajitas, but they release similarly enticing scents as they cook. Shell-on shrimp provide such a nice brininess, the dish hardly needs added salt, but peeled shrimp also work. Any size shrimp will do.
1 cup (240 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic (from 3 cloves)
1 teaspoon mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash
1 pound (450 g) shrimp, preferably shell on (see note)
2 tablespoons hot water
½ teaspoon flaky sea salt
¼ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera dulce)
Crusty bread, for serving
In a 12-inch (30-cm) cazuela or heavy frying pan, combine the oil, garlic, and pepper flakes. Set over medium-low heat to warm slowly (on a diffuser if using a cazuela), gradually raising the heat to medium-high until the oil is hot and the garlic starts to sizzle and just turns golden, about 3 minutes.
Add the shrimp and cook, turning once, until firm and white throughout, 2 to 5 minutes; the timing depends on their size. Remove the pan from the heat. Sprinkle the shrimp with the hot water, salt, and paprika. Serve at once, directly from the cazuela or on plates. Accompany with the bread for mopping up the cooking juices.
NOTE Set the shrimp out at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking so they are not ice-cold when they hit the pan.
Serves 4 to 6
After tasting this elegant dinner party dish in a 1958 class taught by famed New York cooking instructor Dione Lucas, Paula decided to drop out of college and become a restaurant chef. She had not made the dish again for decades when we cooked it together in 2015. She swore she had no memory of it, yet when we assembled the fillets, her hands knew what to do. The recipe is unusual, as the fish fillets are first poached in white wine in the oven and then draped in a thick, creamy sauce and broiled. As I prepared the sauce with her, I feared it would taste heavy, even gluey. But she reassured me. Presto! It emerged from the broiler tasting surprisingly silky and redolently spiced. You’ll want to serve this dish with crusty bread to savor each bit of the sauce.
6 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter (90 g total), plus more for greasing
3 Roma tomatoes (about 9 ounces | 255 g total), halved lengthwise and seeded
6 (4-ounce | 115-g) skinless sole (Dover, petrale, or grey) or flounder fillets
Flaky sea salt
6 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves, halved
1 thin yellow onion slice, separated into 6 strands
¼ cup (60 ml) dry white wine
3 tablespoons (25 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (240 ml) fish stock
¼ cup (60 ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a shallow broiler-safe baking dish 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) in diameter. Line the bottom with parchment paper and lightly butter the parchment.
Using the large holes of a box grater, and with the cut side against the grater, grate the tomato halves and discard the skins. Set aside.
Arrange the sole fillets on a work surface and pat dry. Sprinkle each fillet with a pinch or two of salt and cayenne pepper, then top each fillet with 1½ teaspoons of the butter, 1 peppercorn, and 1 bay leaf half. Starting from a narrow end, roll up each fillet into a snug cylinder and place, seam side down, in the prepared baking dish. Top each fillet with 1 onion strand. Pour the white wine into the dish.
Poach the fish in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and spoon out all but about 1 tablespoon of the wine from the dish. Set the fish aside in the dish and keep warm. Position an oven rack 7 inches (17.5 cm) from the heating element and preheat the broiler.
In a small saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons (45 g) of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour and whisk for 30 seconds to blend thoroughly without coloring. Add the stock, cream, and grated tomato and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Turn down the heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the parsley, then whisk in the remaining 2 teaspoons butter, ½ teaspoon at a time, whisking after each addition until melted. Season with salt and black pepper and remove from the heat.
Spoon the sauce over the fish fillets and sprinkle evenly with the cheese. Broil until the sauce begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Serve immediately directly from the baking dish or transfer the fillets to individual plates with a generous serving of sauce.
Makes one 11-inch (28-cm) roll; serves 8 to 15
The cake can be frozen for up to 2 weeks. Thaw at room temperature before serving.
Lightly sweet and spiked with Cognac, this crowd-pleasing, fail-safe dessert works for any occasion from a potluck to a holiday feast (it would make an ideal gluten-free bûche de noël, the French yule log cake). Its user friendliness is why Paula’s early mentor, food titan James Beard, recommended she make ten of the rolls for a dinner party for 150 that she catered as a nineteen-year-old in 1958 (she had never cooked for that many people before).
Today Paula avoids sugar because of her dementia. To adjust for a low-sugar diet, here is a deliciously indulgent but lighter version: Whip 1½ cups (360 ml) heavy cream with 2 tablespoons Cognac, 1 teaspoon grated orange zest, and a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, then fold in ½ cup (60 g) chopped walnuts. Use this mixture in place of the filling, then omit all but the final dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
Unsalted butter, for greasing
5 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1¼ cups (150 g) finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup (120 ml) whole milk
1½ cups (180 g) chopped walnuts
1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅔ cup (130 g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons Cognac, Armagnac, or Grand Marnier
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Butter an 11-by-17-inch (28-by-43-cm) jelly roll or rimmed cookie pan. Line the pan with parchment paper, allowing about 2 inches (5 cm) to overhang each end; butter the paper.
To make the cake, using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a handheld mixer and a large bowl), beat together the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and salt on medium-high speed until pale yellow, about 3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the walnuts and baking powder until well mixed.
Wash and dry the whisk attachment and reattach it to the mixer. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Using the spatula, fold the whites into the yolk mixture just until no white streaks are visible. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it in an even layer.
Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 15 minutes; expect the cake to be thin. Remove the cake from the oven, cover it immediately with a lightly dampened kitchen towel, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat until steaming hot. Remove from the heat. Put the walnuts in a small heatproof bowl, pour the hot milk over them, and let cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
Using the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a handheld mixer and a medium bowl), beat the cream on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Transfer the cream to another bowl. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and beat the butter on high speed until light and fluffy. (Or use the handheld mixer and a large bowl.) Add the granulated sugar in two or three batches, beating after each addition until light and fluffy. Add the milk and walnut mixture and Cognac and beat just until incorporated. Using the rubber spatula, fold in the whipped cream just until combined.
Remove the cake from the refrigerator and lift off the towel. Dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar, if using. Lay a sheet of parchment 20 inches (50 cm) long on the cake. Firmly grip the ends of the pan, including the overhanging paper, and quickly invert the pan onto a work surface. Lift off the pan and then slowly peel off and discard the parchment from the bottom of the cake. Scoop the filling onto the cake and, using an offset spatula, spread the filling in an even layer. Starting from a narrow end, and using the second sheet of parchment on the work surface as an aid, roll the cake up like a jelly roll.
Wrap the rolled-up cake in aluminum foil and refrigerate until firm, at least 15 minutes or up to 12 hours. Before presenting to guests, transfer the roll to a platter and dust the top with more confectioners’ sugar, if using. Cut crosswise into slices to serve.