Legendary cookbook writer Paula Wolfert (left) has been diagnosed with an early form of Alzheimer’s disease, but in characteristic fashion, she’s not taking it passively.
SONOMA, Calif.-Since her diagnosis earlier this year, Paula Wolfert, 75, swears she has simplified her cooking. “I try to cook something every few days, like practicing a musical instrument,” she says.
It’s a smart plan for someone like her, in the early stages of cognitive impairment, when organization problems can first appear. But Wolfert’s definition of “simple” has never been anyone else’s. Her eight seminal cookbooks on the foods of the Mediterranean are famous — some might say infamous — for their complexity, for challenging us to be better cooks.
Over her four-decade career, she would often test a few recipes a day. Meals for herself and her husband of 30 years, crime novelist Bill Bayer, could get eclectic: duck confit, a dish she popularized in 1983 with The Cooking of Southwest France; a Syrian dish spiked with aleppo pepper, a spice she introduced to American chefs in 1994 with The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Rather like when Superman surrendered his powers to try life as a mortal, this new phase is giving her profound insight. She looks up from the book and laughs. “Now that I have to follow my own recipes, some of them are so hard!”
It’s good to hear her laugh again. For several years, Wolfert suspected something was wrong. In its earliest stages, Alzheimer’s disease is surprisingly hard to detect. The telltale proteins that may cause degeneration can be confirmed only by a brain sample taken at autopsy.
Wolfert is also something of a hypochondriac. When she first started forgetting words, she complained that she was losing her mind. Friends and her doctor insisted she was fine. Then two years ago, during appearances to promote her most recent book, The Food of Morocco (2011), whenever someone asked her a multi-pronged question, “I couldn’t connect three sentences together,” she says.
When she couldn’t follow one query from Leonard Lopate on radio station WNYC, “I said, ‘That’s a great question! We don’t have much time, and I really want to talk about the magic of the tagine!’ ” she says.
Still, her doctor told her there was nothing wrong.
Finally, late last year her husband suggested that they have omelets for lunch. Wolfert had studied in the 1950s with Dione Lucas, an early promoter of classic French cooking and perhaps the greatest omelet chef who ever lived (and the first woman ever to appear on a cooking show). Wolfert drew a blank. “I said to Bill, ‘Wait a minute, how do you make an omelet?’ ”
Wait a minute, how do you make an omelet?
She saw two neurologists. Each had a different opinion. One said she had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease; the other diagnosed mild cognitive impairment, a form of dementia that can progress to Alzheimer’s. Time will tell which one she has, depending on how much she loses. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I know there’s something wrong. This isn’t the Paula that I used to know.”
Wolfert has been told she appears to be at Stage Four, moderate cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that includes “greater difficulty performing complex tasks, such as planning dinner for guests,” and “forgetfulness of recent events.”
Wolfert knows that her condition has no cure. But once she was given a diagnosis, she looked to food to help — not just to keep her mind engaged, but also to see whether superfoods could buy her time: “My feeling is, accept that it is what it is, but stall it by trying to do as much as possible.” She began taking donepezil, a drug used to treat dementia that might aid cognitive function. She scanned the Internet and started watching The Dr. Oz Show on TV.
After a Uruguayan cardiologist named Alejandro Junger mentioned on Dr. Oz that inflammation can affect the brain, she tried Junger’s month-long anti-inflammatory Clean Gut cleanse, further popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow. It didn’t restore her short-term memory, but she says she felt healthier and more alert. Now she starts every morning with a smoothie jammed with superfoods that might include seasonal greens, flaxseed, coconut oil, Brazil nuts and a half-dozen vitamins and extracts, such as rosemary extract, curcumin (found in turmeric) and bioperene (found in black pepper). “Keep in mind this is for a warrior, not for a gourmet,” she wrote to her neurologist when she e-mailed her the list of ingredients to confirm that all of it was safe to drink.
A lifelong ingredient scout — and pioneer of mail order — she tapped into her network to find the best superfood sources. To maximize her omega-3s, on the recommendation of a fisherman friend, she ordered 48 six-ounce packages of wild Alaskan king and sockeye salmon from Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics (www.vitalchoice.com). (She eats only three ounces at a time, using the carbon-steel cleaver she bought as a culinary student of Dione Lucas to hack one frozen fillet in two.)
I wish I had more sardine recipes in my books!
Her favorite Angelo Parodi sardines from Portugal proved too expensive, so she ordered four cases of the more affordable Season brand from Morocco. (“I wish I had more sardine recipes in my books!” she says. “I’m trying to get myself to eat two cans a week.”)
Is any of it working? The only evidence she can cite is that she looks and feels better than she has in years. “I know I’m not better, but I’m not getting worse,” Wolfert says.
A Mediterranean Feast fundraiser organized by Susan Park and Farid Zadi will feature some of Los Angeles’ top chefs cooking from Wolfert’s recipes. Chefs already confirmed include Nancy Silverton, Susan Feniger, Matt Molina, Mary Sue Milliken, Robbie Richter and Bruce Kalman.
The event, to be held at Sarkis Vartanian’s Daily Dose downtown, isn’t until April 27, but it is almost sure to sell out early. General admission, which includes a walk-around sampling of more than 30 dishes, is $75. There are also VIP tickets for $125 that include valet parking and sit-down tasting.