Food and Memory

Kristina’s Bookshelf

Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life
by Emily Kaiser Thelin, photography by Eric Wolfinger
(Copyright 2017 ©. Published by M & P.)

Berkeley resident and two-time James Beard finalist Emily Thelin has long earned my admiration as a reporter who brings detailed, colorful perspective to her writing and knows how to tell a good story. In her latest effort, she’s turned her skills to creating a beautiful memoir and collection of recipes recounting the life of legendary California cookbook writer Paula Wolfert. 

Unforgettable explores Wolfert’s adventure-filled life and career, including her Brooklyn childhood, her travels through the Mediterranean, her life in New York and California, and her recent diagnosis with early dementia and Alzheimer’s. The book gives the backstory to Wolfert’s many achievements, sharing details from her personal life and drawing on interviews with Wolfert and dozens of food writers and chefs, from Alice Waters and Thomas Keller to Jacques Pépin. In addition to extensive biographical detail, the book features more than 50 of Wolfert’s best recipes, chosen from her nine cookbooks and numerous magazine articles. Most are gluten- and sugar-free and rich with fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats, examples of the way Wolfert is currently cooking to support her brain health. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Wolfert traveled through Southwest France, Spanish Catalonia, Sicily, and the Middle East. She shared her discoveries in her books and articles, in the process introducing ingredients like “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” to mainstream American cooking.  

Although recipes in some of her earlier cookbooks may be considered complicated for the variety of ingredients and preparation required, recipes in Unforgettable involve ingredients readily available at local markets and easily prepared on a busy weekday. All exemplify Wolfert’s deeply satisfying and flavorful style of cooking. Dishes from various regions tie into different parts of Wolfert’s life and include combinations like Balkan and other eggplant dishes; Shrimp Suquet, a kind of Catalonian stir fry, with ground almonds and a savory hit of cognac; Wild Greens Jam, a savory, creamy spread; Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Olives and Porcini; Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Cornichon Butter; and Greek Butter-Almond Cookies with Ouzo made with low-gluten flours. Ample headnotes to each recipe and a section titled “Paula’s Tips for Dementia Worriers and Warriors” provides an extensive list of resources for living, cooking, and eating with dementia and memory challenges.

Remarkably, for all the valuable information the book presents, without Thelin’s persistence and commitment, Unforgettable, a handsomely produced volume with photographs by Eric Wolfinger, might never have been published. In the Introduction, Thelin relates how her book proposal was rejected by nearly a dozen publishers who all felt Wolfert’s “story was interesting but her time had passed.” Undaunted, Thelin found a supportive team and undertook a Kickstarter campaign to finance the effort, raising nearly double her original goal from dozens of Wolfert’s supporters. In Thelin’s words, “These are the recipes that celebrate Paula’s life and the ideas and foods she cherishes.”

Excerpt from Unforgettable, reprinted with permission from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin, copyright 2017 ©. Published by M & P. (

“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.”

For more on the book, visit

The book can be purchased at Market Hall Foods in Berkeley and Oakland, Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, and The Gardener in Berkeley, as well as at various brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country plus online shops. Find bookstores here.

Upcoming Book Events

Paula Wolfert and Emily Kaiser Thelin present
Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life 
Saturday April 22, 2–3pm
Reader’s Books
130 East Napa St, Sonoma
Info: here

Emily Thelin, Andrea Nguyen, Toni Tajima, & Eric Wolfinger discuss
Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life 
Tuesday April 25, 6:30–7:30pm
Omnivore Books
3885 Cesar Chavez St, San Francisco
Info: here

Oaktown Spice Shop has assembled a collection of the various spices that Wolfert popularized in their Unforgettable Spice Box.

Edible East Bay’s book editor Kristina Sepetys is eager to share her ideas and book recommendations with our readers.