Brain Food: A Food Renegade’s Last Stand
Culinary legend Paula Wolfert fights a spirited battle against Alzheimer's using food, friends, and laughter as medicine.
There was Paula Wolfert—queen of couscous, doyenne of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, five-time James Beard Award-winning author—disembarking on my long flight to Casablanca, Morocco. Paula was my Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and Elizabeth David all wrapped into one, and I was standing beside her, by chance, in 1994, along with a couple hundred chefs and food writers. I, the newcomer to food writing, was charmed to be listening to her greet and gossip with her cohorts.
"Hey," she said, squinting at my name tag. "We both write for the same magazine." She immediately made me feel like a colleague. As the line inched along, we found we were neighbors in San Francisco, where she and her husband, best-selling crime novelist William "Bill" Bayer, had recently moved from Connecticut.
Back home, we became fast friends. From the first time I picked her up to go to a Spanish restaurant on Russian Hill, where we both lived, she was open and funny. I ate her words. I loved her upbeat energy, her inquisitiveness, her immediacy.
Since she didn't drive, I took her grocery shopping and to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market weekly. There, young chefs timidly approached her to extend an invitation to their fledgling restaurants. Farmers familiar with her proclivity for hard-to-find vegetables and herbs offered her uncommon green vegetables such as purslane and cardoons. Alice Waters invited her to dinners at Chez Panisse and parties at her house. "Why is everybody being so nice to me around here?" Paula, the former New Yorker, would ask. She sat on culinary panels where she shared generously and injected moments of much-needed humor when topics got too earnest. Scholars would debate the dire needs for the use of mortars and pestles over food processors for making pesto, for instance, or they might argue that a true Genovese pesto could only be made with the tiny leaves of basil from Liguria. Paula would say to use what we had on hand and not to take pesto making too seriously.
While she never nitpicked the size of a basil leaf, Paula went to painstaking lengths to document authentic recipes from the source. There was a gentle joke among her food writer friends that Saveur magazine had asked for 600 words on the canelé de Bordeaux, which she described as "a magical bakery confection, a cake with a rich custardy interior enclosed by a thin caramelized shell." But Paula learned so much, having become friendly with a secret brotherhood of Bordeux bakers, that she sent in thousands of words.
She sought "Big Taste...food that is deeply satisfying and that appeals to all the sense," as described in Paula Wolfert's World of Food. As we became close, we were both testing recipes for our cookbooks, my first and her fifth. I'll never forget bringing her a taste of romesco. She put the roasted pepper sauce in her mouth, closed her eyes, and said, "Are you in love with the flavors? I mean madly in love?" If I hesitated, even for a second, she'd say, "Dump it." The recipe stayed in Olive Oil: From Tree to Table. She was oblivious to the ways like this in which she helped my career. She'd never let me call her my mentor because it carried too much weight. Anointed by Paula, I was on a fast track to my master's degree in gastronomic writing.
And then after a few years, yearning for a taste of country living, Paula and Bill bought a contemporary house in a wooded enclave above Sonoma. She'd had it with San Francisco's hills, the wind and fog. She'd grown weary of all the dinners and lunches, the constant chatter about food. She was ready to make new friends who didn't cook and to immerse herself in the politics of the Democratic party. I missed her terribly. Even if she was only an hour away, it wasn't the same.
One day in 2013, Paula told me her memory had been perilously slipping, so she'd gone in for tests. I called to hear the outcome: It was as she'd suspected. Catherine Madison, MD, a San Francisco neurologist specializing in dementia and now director of the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center, detected mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease in Paula's MRI.
"I'm not one to feel sorry for myself," Paula told me then. "Besides, I'd already done my homework and had been studying alternative treatments for dementia on the Web," especially the work of Dale E. Bredesen, MD, of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and UCLA's Alzheimer's research center. Paula immediately embarked on her own improvised dietetic therapy. In her research on the effects of nutrition on brain function, Paula contacted doctors who believed in the significance of nutritional therapies, not unlike Hippocrates, who around 400 B.C. said, "All disease begins in the gut." She made an appointment with a nutritionist, Sharon Meyer, an associate of Madison's, who approved of Paula's well-researched regimen. Paula read blogs and newsletters in support of her newly found dietary path. Since no real cure has yet been discovered, Paula did what she knew best: She treated food as medicine.
Paula was never comfortable with physical exertion. In 2000, you would have thought she had run a marathon walking a few blocks from our hotel in Bologna, Italy, to the opening ceremony of a Slow Food conference. She begged for water, her face grew bright red, and she panted along the way. So when she told me recently she jogged daily for 30 minutes on the treadmill, I didn't believe her. "Not only that, " she said, "I also take yoga and qigong classes, and I meditate."
Paula also finds comfort in a social routine. She organized a local Memory Café (a spot for people with memory loss to support each other and socialize), and she meets weekly with six women for "Lunch Bunch." She traveled to Washington, D.C., as a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association to discuss the importance of getting tested, taking medication to slow the cognitive decline, and speaking out for a cure. "You can't be ashamed; you have to come out and fight," Paula insisted. She treated her diagnosis with the same vigor she put forth when we traveled thousands of miles to Spain to track down the production of Bomba rice, the ideal grain for making paella. She was serious about slowing down the disease.
After the diagnosis, I put off visiting because of my own self-centered fear. I had some skin in the game, too: I'd seen my brilliant drama critic father's debilitating demise as a result of Alzheimer's in 1985, and that, too, of his rosy-cheeked Irish mother in the mid-'60s. I'd been in an intermittent state of alarm ever since about my brother's and my chances of inheriting the gene.
Before too long, I called to make a date. She was her same enthusiastic self—happy and dying to talk about her new regimen. It came as little surprise, as we ate our wild salmon and sautéed greens at an outdoor table on the square of Sonoma, that yes, her memory loss was apparent in that she couldn't remember names. But who cared? She remembered mine. Her skin glowed and she looked fit and healthy. As I drove home after an espresso and a tiny square of dark chocolate at her house, I felt uplifted. I was filled with a hope that verged on joy. It was a foggy day gone sunny. Instead of letting her news get me down, I felt emboldened: The fact that Paula created a program to outfox the odds of her diagnosis made me feel I could do it, too, if I got the same diagnosis one day. There's hope in taking charge.
One Last Book
Last year, the food world buzzed about a new biographic cookbook project called Unforgettable: Bold Flavors from Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life. Turned down by 10 publishing houses, many of which told her Paula's time had passed, Emily Kaiser Thelin, a food writer and Paula's former editor at Food & Wine, launched a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign. She banded together with photographer Eric Wolfinger, book designer Toni Tajima, and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen (who served as editor) to honor Paula's life and produce the book themselves. Some 1,112 backers donated more than $91,000 to bring the project, to be released in the spring of 2017, to life.
The team culled iconic recipes from Paula's award-winning cookbooks and those in line with her current diet. They wanted to tell the incredible stories behind Paula's canon of cookbooks, to show how far ahead she had been. It was heartening that a younger generation felt the significance of Paula's life vital enough to preserve it in one final book, for all generations. "We wanted to showcase the timelessness and modernity of her recipes," Thelin told me. "We've all been inspired by Paula's depth of knowledge, her bravery about her medical situation, her humor and kindness. Everyone is somehow touched by Alzheimer's and our team is no different."
The project thrilled Paula. But there were days when she wished she didn't have to sift through her memory to answer questions, especially related to her illness or other unhappy topics. As she started to write the book, Thelin said she found it difficult to return to old interview transcripts, to see how vivid Paula's language was when she first started interviews in 2011 and how dementia had shrunk it in the ensuing years. "Sometimes the interviews felt like a three-way conversation: me, Paula, and then dementia interrupting her train of thought," Thelin said.
On the photo shoots, Team Renegade prepared for anything, scaled back whenever necessary, and handled most of the cooking themselves. They shot at Wolfinger's studio in San Francisco instead of Paula's home because she felt too responsible as a host, making the team coffees, retrieving kitchen equipment, and offering dark chocolate snacks. At the studio, she could relax. Paula's hands sometimes remembered the movement of rolling couscous by hand even if she couldn't fully articulate how to do it, Nguyen said. Paula might have burnished her renegade reputation by living in Tangier, Morocco, in the late '50s—the dawn of the Beat Generation—and later, from 1972 to 1976, with her husband, Bill, and children from her first marriage, Leila and Nicholas. But she has always been wise, too. The book details Paula's epic, off-the-beaten-path journeys around the Mediterranean and Middle East as well as her quest for mainstream solutions, at first, to her disease. After her initial diagnosis, she agreed to take Donepezil to enhance cognition, knowing the drug would neither slow the progression of dementia nor cure it.
Bulletproofs, Gritties, and Cookies
Paula's Alzheimer's is between stages three and four, with moderate cognitive decline. She now no longer really cooks. Her sense of taste and smell are diminished, so she makes simple lunches with grass-fed beef or omega 3-rich fish along with braised greens and a salad. For dinner, she blends her own nut, seed, and supplement-laced "gritties," the opposite of a smoothie. She has scaled back on entertaining; when she does have guests, she prefers to serve simple, refreshing snacks, such as sliced watermelon, instead of multicourse feasts.
On a recent visit, she repeated her new routine when I reached her house. She made Bulletproof coffee, a concoction of filtered coffee, grass-fed butter, and specially formulated coconut oil said to increase the brain's focus and attentiveness. As if she was letting me in on a secret, Paula took me down to her basement to see her frozen stash of brain food. We descended, walking past a collection of handsome pots that Bill had made during a pottery-making interlude. Paula led me to a large, dedicated-to-health freezer to reveal pound-size bags of organic blueberries, wild-caught salmon, sardines, chia and flax seeds, and cashews and walnuts.
Upstairs in her high-ceilinged, bright kitchen with a wall of 100-odd clay pots and tagines, she removed from her fridge mounds of chard and kale along with an array of supplements, tinctures, coconut milk, and whatever else would go into her gritty that evening. Avocados were piled into a basket to ripen each day. Later that evening, Bill would grill himself a steak, and her son, Nick, would make his own dinner.
And then Paula went to bed, but not before she took a tiny bite of a marijuana cookie purchased from a licensed dispensary. It doesn't make her high, she said, it just relaxes her and helps her not wake in the middle of the night and grow restless. Sleep is an important part of her battle with Alzheimer's. The edibles, Thelin writes in Unforgettable, are "the only part not sanctioned by her neurologist, as the treatment, though legal, is not yet approved by the FDA." Her only piece of picture identification these days, aside from her passport, is her medical marijuana card.
Paula starts her day over and does just what she did the day before. She lives in the moment and tries not to think about the future. Her short-term memory is failing, but she still recalls stories, lots of stories. She reminded me of the day legendary chef Paul Bocuse was in town and she brought me to lunch to meet him. In my best French, I told him he looked trim and healthy and asked him his secret. "Do you remember what he said, "Peggy?" she asked me, not waiting on the answer. "Oatmeal!"
The last visit I paid Paula was pretty much the same as before. I still didn't like the Bulletproof coffee, nor would I taste her gritty that she made. We went to a new Portuguese restaurant this time and then for coffee before returning to her house. I had ogled her clay pot collection for 26 years and wondered what would happen to it. As if she read my mind, she pulled down a sage green tagine and put it in my hands. I got teary understanding the implication: That part of her life was over. But I'd be along to share the next chapter, and the one after that with her.
"I want you to have it and cook with it while you still like to cook," she told me. And when I got home, I put it on a shelf in my kitchen. I pulled out her first book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, and chose a tagine of chicken, green olives, and preserved lemons to make the next day.
A Paula Wolfert Reader
These five books will reward you with a world of big flavors and rich stories of the people and places behind them.
Unforgettable: Bold Flavors from Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life Due out in spring 2017, this biography by Emily Kaiser Thelin shares Paula's classic recipes and chronicles the raconteur's career across the globe and up the food chain. Her fading memory doesn't loom sadly; it makes the book feel more alive and crackle with a sense of urgency.
The Food of Morocco A celebration of a 50-year love affair with the country that inspired her first book and brought tagines and couscous into our home kitchens.
Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking Paula got her first clay pot at age 19 and collected dozens more over the years. The recipes here capture the vessel's slow-simmered soul.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen Full of relaxing, forgiving stews and braises to ward off "kitchen performance anxiety" brought on by à la minute dishes.
Alzheimer's Disease A type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior due to a degeneration of brain cells. Symptoms typically develop slowly, worsen over time, and interfere with daily tasks.
Amyloid Plaques These are abnormal deposits of proteins that build up around brain cells in people with Alzheimer's , disrupting communication between cells and leading to cell death.
Tangles These are abnormal protein formations inside the brain cells of people with Alzheimer's that disrupts the communication between cells and contribute to cell death.
Antioxidants These compounds occur naturally in foods and help prevent or stop damage caused by oxidants. Oxidants are free radicals created by the body during natural processes. Antioxidants clear these unwanted free radicals from the body.
Oxidative Stress This is damage caused by an imbalance of too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants in the body; some oxidative stress is part of the natural aging process, but other oxidative stress can cause damage that is thought to lead to the development of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's, as well as other diseases.
Insulin Resistance A condition in which the body produces insulin but does not use it effectively, causing a buildup of glucose in the blood. Untreated insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes and may play a role in Alzheimer's.
A Tool Kit of Resources
If you think you or someone you know has symptoms of dementia, consult a neurologist to tailor a plan of action. The links below, including recommendations from Paula Wolfert, will help you stay abreast of the latest developments on dementia and cognitive function.
Alzheimer's News Today Keep current on the latest studies and news developments on brain health.
alzforum.org A news site that publishes and archives the latest scientific papers on the disease.
brainhq.com A relatively new brain training site with personalized courses and challenges backed by research studies.
The Caregiver Action Network Tips and forums for all types of caregiving situations.
dementiajourney.org Practical and heartfelt advice for caring for loved ones with memory loss.
fourhourworkweek.com For creative approaches to productivity and mental alertness, Paula follows the blogs and podcasts of Timothy Ferriss.
time.com/tag/longevity News stories about the challenges we face later in life as we live longer.
bulletproofexec.com Paula Wolfert's daily routine inspired by Cooking Light staffers to try Bulletproof coffee, a fuel for the Silicon Valley set. We blended 8 ounces of hot filtered coffee with 1 tablespoon Kerrygold grass-fed butter and 1 teaspoon XCT oil (derived from coconut oil) per serving. It made us feel much more alert than regular black coffee and staved off hunger, too.