A Conversation with Paula Wolfert Includes Coffee and Canelés
Photo by Sara Remington
Editor's note: This story was originally published in Edible San Francisco, Issue #1, Fall 2005
When Paula Wolfert invites you to her home for canelés and espresso, you go. Not just because this is the Paula Wolfert, but because you happen to know that she is in sole possession of the authentic recipe for canelés de Bordeaux.
OK, that’s not exactly true. You can find the recipe for the custardy pastry in her Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (Wiley, 2003), but it comes straight from the vault of La confrérie du canelé de Bordeaux, a society of 87 pâtissiers who were so disgusted with the proliferation of mediocre canelés bordelais that they convened to codify an official recipe, and then stuck it in a safe for safekeeping.
Coaxing recipes out of reluctant cooks is Paula’s specialty. Her cook-books are full of closely guarded family recipes that were eventually given to her in the strictest confidence, as long as she promised not to share them with the cook next door. How Paula got the canelé recipe is no secret though: The confrérie (French for brotherhood) just gave it to her—but only if she agreed not to publish it in French.
Once you’ve met her, though, you get a sense of how she charms her way into the homes and kitchens of cooks around the world. She plies you with food (pastries and espresso) and gifts (a bag of pungent red pepper from Kahramanmaras) and instantly you are smitten. Considering the number of countries she’s either lived in or traveled to, I assume she’s conversant in countless languages, yet I’m surprised when she admits to not knowing that many.
“You learn enough to charm,” she says. “When I studied Georgian [for her The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (Morrow, 1994)], people were clamoring at my door, ‘I want to teach her, I want to teach her!’ They were thrilled to have an American there who wanted to learn Georgian. That’s what you do: You make an effort, and you bring presents!” (Garlic peelers were especially popular in Turkey, while Laura Ashley linens were not.)
“THIS POT ALMOST CAUSED ME TO DIE”
Sitting in Paula’s kitchen, enjoying her “artisan canelés,” crisp on the outside and custardy inside (Paula politely refuses to sample one; she’s on the South Beach Diet), you can’t help but admire the exotically colored collection of tagines, cassoles, daubières and caquelons that line the wall above her stove. Each cooking pot has a story to tell and while it’s comforting to keep those memories only a quick glance away, there’s one pot in particular whose tale she’d rather forget.
On a 15-hour Turkish Airlines flight, Paula carried a large clay comlek (casserole) on her lap all the way to New York. Getting off the plane, she felt like most people do after they endure a transatlantic flight, only worse, and ended up in the hospital. She was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the legs which, in its deadliest form, can move through the bloodstream and travel to the heart. Her hospital stay put her behind the deadline for the newly revised edition of The Cooking of Southwest France (Wiley, 2005), so she casually mentioned the predicament in a post on the internet food forum eGullet.
Her distress call for recipe testers ended up garnering her 26 cooks from around the world, including Israel, Ireland and Canada. One of them was a foodie from Seattle with the handle nathanm. Nathan’s passion was sous vide, the technique that involves cooking food by simmering the ingredients in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches. His understanding of the science and the FDA guidelines behind the sous vide technique was impressive, and eventually proved vital for getting a recipe in the book. Wanting to thank him in the acknowledgments, she asked for his last name, which turned out to be Myhrvold. Paula casually mentioned to her husband at dinner one night if he knew what kind of name Myhrvold was, and he replied, “Nathan Myhrvold? Why, everybody knows his name, Paula. That’s the man Bill Gates hired to create Windows!” (Myhrvold is the former CTO of Microsoft.) Paula was shocked and wrote back to say, “Are you sure you want me to put your name in the book?” to which Nathan quickly replied, “Don’t you dare remove it!”
“He wants to be a foodie!” says Paula, “something you can’t buy, but you have to earn. Boy, did he earn it!” [Editor’s note: Myhrvold co-authored Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (The Cooking Lab, 2011) with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet and has been a guest judge on “Top Chef.”]
A visit with Paula Wolfert ends up being a veritable show-and-tell session. Besides her ceramic pots, I’ve seen her enormous cookbook collection, her James Beard Awards (stashed nearly out of sight) and I even got to poke around in her cupboards and fridge. The refrigerator is mostly empty except for a few jars of goose fat, confit and some bean soup (South Beach Diet again), yet somehow you imagine she could instantly prepare a magnificent feast.
Checking a tagine in Morocco | Photo: Courtesy Paula Wolfert
Like the recipes of her newly revised book, she relies a lot on her larder. Contrary to our current obsession with only the freshest sustainable and organic foods, Paula reminds me that in the Mediterranean, “fresh vegetables are necessary, but they don’t have to be today’s vegetables.” She explains, “When I lived in Morocco, all summer long people were making food for the winter. That’s something that we don’t even think about anymore—making jarred food. We just don’t have an appreciation of that type of cooking with this movement of farmers markets, it’s all got to be fresh, fresh, fresh.”
Don’t think that Paula doesn’t love her farmers markets, though. She insists we drive into town for a quick tour of the local “farm” and a stop at the cheese store. On the way, I ask her, out of all the places in the world she’s lived in or visited, how did she end up in Sonoma?
“I was living in New York and Connecticut, but my husband wanted to live in San Francisco.” So six years ago she moved to SF—“kicking and screaming,” she says, but eventually ended up in Sonoma. “Now, I would rather live in New York than most anywhere, and I love San Francisco, but I’ve really come to love Sonoma.”
California is a long way from Tangiers, though, where her food writing career really took off. She lived in the Moroccan city on and off from 1959 to 1976 and wrote her classic Couscous and Other Good Food of Morocco (Harper & Row, 1973) based on the recipes cajoled from the local cooks. Now, in a humorous twist, when Moroccans come to America, they turn to her book for help. According to Paula, “They have a real problem: They don’t know how to cook the food because the maids always did it!”
Paula promises to show me her Spanish fly before I leave and of course I have absolutely no idea what she is talking about. Pulling out a jar that contains a mixture of ras el hanout, the Moroccan spice mixture that she bought in Fez 25 years ago, she points to a shiny green speck nestled in among the orrisroot and earth almonds. Spanish fly, it turns out, is a reputed aphrodisiac, formerly used to seduce women. Knowing that in her beatnik days she once met Jack Kerouac, I jokingly ask as I’m leaving if he ever tried it on her.
“No!” she replies. “But he did say I have nice legs!”
An Interview with Paula Wolfert was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue and subsequently reprinted in Fall 2015. © 2005 Edible San Francisco.
Editor's note: Paula "was diagnosed several years ago with a variant of Alzheimer’s Syndrome. Since then, she’s embarked on what could be considered almost a second career, helping to boost awareness of the disease and raise funds for Alzheimer’s research." Continue reading the Los Angeles Times story by Russ Parsons Paula Wolfert's working on a new cookbook -- and you can help.