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In Praise of Cookbook Author and Mediterranean Cooking Authority Paula Wolfert

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Tuesday, Apr 1, 2014
As Alzheimer's pulls Wolfert away from us, we are made doubly aware of the history she brings to the table with every dish. We don't want to lose that history.
Above image from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook ( Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2013)


I have before of me an original edition of Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Written in 1973, this book put Moroccan food on the American map, or more accurately, into American mouths. One need only read Gael Greene’s introduction to realize how very spoiled we’ve become, 40 years later. Greene, invited to Wolfert’s New York apartment to taste from the cookbook-in-progress, writes about what to bring:


Blockquote“Do I bring flowers? Wine? Bonbons? No, I bring cilantro (green coriander) because fresh cilantro is the badge of our friendship.  (She can’t buy it in her neighborhood. I can. A friend would not cross town without cilantro.)”blockquote
  
Notice a few things about the above quote. The first is Greene’s need to italicize “cilantro”. The second is the necessity of explanation: “green coriander”. The third is its scarcity: “She can’t buy it in her neighborhood. I can.” I thoughtlessly bought cilantro at the market yesterday, along with a bunch of chard. None of it was across town: I walked to the corner market.


But the fact that I thought I required either—the cilantro, the chard, or even the coriander seeds in my spice cupboard, coriander being cilantro in seed form—are due in enormous part to Paula Wolfert .


How much we American cooks take for granted, these days! Here is Wolfert in 1973, taking pains to explain djej emshmel—chicken with preserved lemons and green olives. This is a dish I prepare almost weekly, with lemons preserved from my backyard tree, resting on a bed of Bob’s Red Mill Israeli Couscous. (Inauthentic, but my spouse adores it.) That couscous is chosen from a dozen other equally delicious couscous selections my market carries, many organic. How far we’ve come, indeed.


Wolfert alerted eaters to freeekh, immature green wheat, an ingredient popularized by Yotam Ottolenghi, whose wildly innovative cookery likely wouldn’t have an American audience had Wolfert not primed our tongues for the explosive punch of herbs, spices, salt and honeyed sweetness defining Moroccan and Middle Eastern cookery. And it was Wolfert who brought couscous to the American palate in 1973, exhorting us to ignore boxed couscous. She urged us to try steaming the grains the authentic way: it’s easy. It’s fun.Yes, it requires the better part of an afternoon. The result will be worth the time spent.


Wolfert’s approach is anthropological—apart from actual cooking, the best way to learn about food. Her books invariably begin with maps, histories of who lived where, what was farmed, what was foraged, wars fought, won, and lost. Then she schleps up mountainsides, into rural communities, into homes, into farmhouses and restaurant kitchens.


Throughout her books she has written that the soul of Mediterranean cooking rests with women—women, more often that not, with many children. Most of these expert female cooks work hard at multiple jobs. Some are illiterate. More than a few are widows. 


Over the years, Wolfert has occasionally been criticized for her approach, particularly by John Thorne in Outlaw Cook. Thorne wasn’t entirely wrong in his critique, accusing Wolfert of leaving readers behind as she was magically shown the best table in a foreign city. But the truth is, most readers can only fantasize about Wolfert’s life of intense travel and exploration. Readers have a choice: they can resent Wolfert, or they can open her books and, following her lead, cook great food.


Life is short.


This message was slammed home when I learned Paula Wolfert has Alzheimer’s disease. She announced the news in December 2013. The disease is in the early stages: she is able to cook, so long as a cookbook is alongside. She is no longer able to recall ingredient amounts or cooking times.


Steady on, friends. If you are so inclined, may I suggest a nip of Armagnac? 


And so here, a full-throated, open-mouthed appreciation for a woman whose cookbooks live on my short shelf: the small bookshelf beside my kitchen, holding my most precious cookbooks, the ones nearest to my heart.


In Slate’s review of 1998’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens, Nicholas Lemann famously declares Wolfert as “A high maintenance Diva, but worth it”, concluding that foodies, in their fanatic pursuit of authenticity, are wrongly maligned as snobs. In Wolfert’s case, he writes, she should be hailed as a hero.


It’s true that Wolfert’s cooking is not for the dinner-in-30-minutes brigade. Nor is it for dieters, strict vegetarians, or those fatphobes. To cook Wolfert’s food you must to be willing to spend time, effort, and money in the kitchen. Wolfert is an advocate of the finest ingredients, and whether she realizes it or not, her recipes anticipate a fair amount of high-end cookware. I myself lack a batterie de cuisine. I have neither food processor nor dishwasher. I have a couple of decent pots, a few sharp knives, and a deep sink. Inclination is all.


To prepare Wolfert’s food is to be amply rewarded on multiple fronts. As a cook, you are preparing recipes with pure pedigrees. Wolfert’s food has history. This is not “Pizzette-Style Chicken Palliard” (no, I did not make this up), or “Irish Nachos” (calling for potato chips, “cheese sauce”, Irish cheddar, corn salsa, and “peppered bacon”) (Could I make this up?). 


Ideally, the time spent in the kitchen is restful: the brain’s nattering shuts off, shifting to alpha state. There is the tactile pleasure of handling fresh vegetables, the scent of spices, the sense of a meal coming together. There is the pleasure of feeding appreciative eaters, the sense of accomplishment, and a sense—so fleeting these days—of participating in something larger than oneself.


And the food! No trembling little ramekins of coulis, no cuisine minceur, no modernist cuisine. Nathan Mythrvold will not come knocking, cameras in tow. Instead, the finest beef stew you have ever eaten, the best squash soup, the most succulent short ribs. You will have a deep understanding of how to use an entire duck, mitigating its cost. You will know how make pancetta perform more tricks than Sage Kotseburg, why Armagnac is like Catherine Deneuve. Your deep need for a five-quart enameled French casserole costing half your rent will repay itself weekly, even as you skimp on necessities like heat. (Spring is coming.) 


Those greens that you know are good for you, but look so large and daunting? Check out Mediterranean Grains and Greens and The Cooking of The Eastern Mediterranean for some direction.  Notice how Wolfert was ahead of the foodie curve, offering a recipe for Sautéed Cavolo Nero (black or Lacinato Kale) with Garlicky White Beans—in 1998.


I do not have all of Wolfert’s books—four are missing from my collection. I am the poorer for it. For now, I gratefully cook from the ones I have, which have taught me so very much. From complete ignorance of spices like coriander, cardamom, ginger, and fennel, I now wonder how I ever cooked without them. Recipes for preserved lemons, with their final line: “lasts two years” always make me laugh: a jar of preserved lemons has a six month shelf life in my kitchen. Blame Paula Wolfert.


I’ve saved my favorite for last.


There are a very few cookbooks that every serious cook regards as primers or manuals, books speaking to more than cooking. These books address a way of life. I do not mean a canned “lifestyle”, available for purchase at the right shops. I mean a way of being in the world.


I realize I am wading into murky waters. Cookbook as life manual?


The revised edition of The Cooking of Southwest France appeared in 2005. I’d become interested in French country cooking, but that interest bloomed into a full-blown obsession with the acquisition of Wolfert’s classic.


The book had me from the start. Like many regional cookbooks, The Cooking of Southwest France begins with a map and discussion of regional foods. But where most cookbooks open with a chapter on equipment or pantry staples, Wolfert offers “The Tastes of The French Southwest”; starting with Armagnac, that magnificent French brandy.


Here we are in Gascony, on market day. The men are sampling Armagnac by rubbing drops into their palms and sniffing. Asked to describe the libation, one man tells Wolfert, “Armagnac is a tempestuous woman of a certain age, someone you don’t bring home to Mother, someone who excites your blood.”


We’re a long way from Safeway, Toto.


Like all of Wolfert’s books, The Cooking of Southwest France is more than an iteration of recipes. It is a vivid description of French country life. In trying to learn to prepare mique, or stuffed cabbage, Wolfert wryly describes a day spent with a distrustful Frenchwoman who leaves out critical portions of the recipe. Her mique turns out stodgy. She waves away her family’s complaints, spooning up her portion.  But Wolfert sees past the woman’s subterfuge, noticing the fine stone kitchen, the hardworking family, and the woman’s cooking skills. 


The Cooking of Southwest France includes a chapter called “Duck, Goose, and Rabbit”. Wolfert will walk you through how to do it most economically—and deliciously.  I won’t lie: confit is not cheap. But it is not difficult, either. You need an afternoon in the kitchen, several rolls of paper towels, and the willpower to let it rest in your fridge. Confit is excellent after three months. Allow to ripen for six and you have something truly special. Nobody, least of all you, will believe you made such a thing. 


The Cooking of Southwest France  is more than just confits and Armagnac. Consider Old-Fashioned Rabbit Soup, Autumn Squash Soup With Country Ham And Garlic Croutes, Oxtail Daube, Daube Of Beef In The Style Of Gascony, Crushed Beef Daube for Early September, meant to for autumn’s first cool days; for me, working in academia, it has come to signify Fall Semester: the beginning of the new year.


In over 40 years of avid research, cooking, and writing, Wolfert has cooked and eaten more than most of us ever will. Her efforts appear in nine comprehensive works; such is the enormity of her gift to her readers. Wolfert fans will never reach the end of her recipes. 


Given an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, many of us would withdraw from the public arena. Wolfert has instead turned her formidable energies toward research, activism, and fundraising. 


Lemann is right. Wolfert should be hailed as a hero. She is a true lady. Let us all thank her—for the couscous, the cilantro, the lemons. The recipes for greens before they were fashionable. The warka, the trid, the köfte. The harissa and yogurt and hrous.  The confits and daubes and a thousand ways with lamb. The eggplants and peppers, the potatoes and rice. The many ways with almonds and spices, breads and appetizers, fish and soups and desserts. For the wonderful cookbooks that changed the way we ate, all for the better.


Thank you, Paula.

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