A French writer once said that “a recipe has a hidden side, like the moon.” In every recipe there’s a little something that makes it special, and, hopefully, better. – Paula Wolfert
The symptoms of dementia can vary greatly from person to person. In Paula’s case, it was her response to a simple request that acted as an early warning sign. One day her husband Bill asked her to make an omelet and her reply was: “I don’t remember how to make an omelet.”
For Paula Wolfert, 76, a woman who spent decades mastering the art of cooking cassoulets, stews and Moroccan dishes – as evidenced by her nine Mediterranean cookbooks and five James Beard awards – this was more than unsettling. “Of all things – an omelet!”
Studying baking in Paris, 1980.
Not long after that exchange, before her last book was released in 2011, Paula conducted interviews with industry professionals who had received advance copies of her cookbook. During interviews, she struggled to remember the questions asked and had a difficult time responding appropriately. During a visit with her physician, Paula shared her concerns, but the cause of her symptoms was still undetermined. In 2013, after getting a second opinion, it was confirmed that Paula had an atypical variant of Alzheimer’s called Benson’s syndrome.
Paula has always been untraditional. “One year on Christmas I made my daughter couscous and my son stuffed pig’s foot! I have always been a bit unorthodox.” Her children were born in France in early 1960s and grew up in Morocco. “Our family had a daily shared mealtime. Those meals helped create a sense of belonging, and I still enjoy preparing food for my children. When my daughter visits, she always asks for a tagine. I have to run back to my book and look at the recipes, but as I cook –sometimes, somehow – memories come back. They may not be memories from that exact day, but memories do come flooding back when I make certain dishes.”
Working on her first book in 1971.
Despite her professional background, Paula grew up in a household where food memories were rare. “My mother didn’t like to cook during the holidays or otherwise and wasn’t adventurous. Her idea of cooking was melon, cooked beans, cottage cheese and iceberg lettuce. I truly have no recollection of sitting around a table with my family. The family I created with my children was different. We had meals together that created powerful memories.”
Today, in addition to her husband, Bill, Paula cooks alongside her son and care partner, Nick. “When I see my children, we live in the now. I still get pleasure out of talking about food and showing them how to coax and make food come alive. I just can’t get in front of a stove and do it alone anymore. I can still laugh, and my wit hasn’t left me. I don’t think it will. I can’t write anymore; the letters jump around. You can’t dictate a cookbook. That part of my life is over. I can’t turn back the clock, but I also can’t walk away from my friends and family.”
Paula’s husband Bill.
“I may not write cookbooks anymore, but I have a different kind of job now. I have always been a researcher. I researched cultures and food and that part of me has not changed. Today I research ways I can live better. I can’t cure my disease, but I can make living with it easier. I may have to read something five times or more to finally remember some of it, but I do remember some of it if I keep at it.”
According to Bill, the recipe that Paula likes to make most is oxtail ragu, which is conveniently also Bill’s favorite dish. For the first time in a year, Paula cooked for guests – a French family that came to visit – this past holiday season. Her husband helped her plan the menu, which included a spin on his favorite: ragu of duck with prunes and onions, a French favorite from the southwestern region.
Everyday meals aren’t cuisine of the ragu sort. Cooking is very different than it was before Paula’s diagnosis. She cooks three times per week, primarily vegetables that she can freeze and store for later use. She enjoys using Vital Choice wild Alaskan king and sockeye salmon as a protein and incorporates a variety of ingredients into her diet, including Brussels sprouts, olives, pomegranates, fennel, red pepper and coconut oil.
Paula has simplified her cooking due to changes in her sense of taste and smell.
“Some things I can still smell, like rosemary. I can’t smell roses. I can’t smell smoke. But I am still so focused. When I wrote my books, I would learn the language of the country I visited. When I went to Sicily, I hired someone to teach me Sicilian. I learned enough to charm people so that they would show me things they never showed anyone else. I did this for decades. Now I have to put the focus on taking care of myself.”
Paula at her desk.
“The reason I contacted the Alzheimer’s Association is because I could not take care of myself alone,” she says. “I needed guidance.”
Today she puts a focus on clean living and staying social with family and friends. She has lost 25 pounds due to frequent treadmill and yoga exercise. She drinks a smoothie every day chock full of greens and vitamins. She dines with a group of women her age who are still in the workforce (the “Lunch Bunch”) once a week. “I consider what I am doing to take care of myself to be working”, she says.
“The thing that’s most important to me is that I live in the now. I am not the professional person I once was, and I can’t turn back the clock, but I do what I can now to live my best life. After my diagnosis, I felt sorry for myself for about 15 minutes. I am very proud of what I have accomplished in my life; I feel very lucky to have the life I have had. I have lost some things but not others.”
One of the first warning signs of Paula’s disease was that she would watch favorite shows like “Mad Men” and couldn’t remember what she had watched the following day. What did stay with her is a quote from the show’s main character Don Draper. “This quote struck me because it made me remember a time of my life where I had the feeling of love. I live in the now, but I also want to live for the then and the future:”
Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved. – Don Draper, “Mad Men”
About Paula: Paula is a member of the 2014 National Early-Stage Advisor Group. She is an advocate, wife, mother, and chef whose career spanned more than 40 years. For more than 20 years, she authored a column in Food & Wine magazine and was featured in numerous publications including Gourmet and Bon Appetite. She helped start a Memory Cafe to encourage social engagement with others living with the disease. She lives in Sonoma, California with her husband Bill.