I met Paula Wolfert in 2008, when Food & Wine sent me to Morocco to profile her. She never had a restaurant, a TV show, or any of the other contemporary markers of culinary success—but over nearly four decades, from 1973 to 2011, her cookbooks and writing on the traditional foods of the Mediterranean had an incalculable influence on American grocery shelves and our approach to cooking. Paula helped popularize foods we now take for granted: the 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. With her curiosity, her rigor, and her vision, she legitimized a reverence for place that all good chefs now embrace.
After the success of her first book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973), Paula traveled the world in search of tastes outside the culinary mainstream. She could bond quickly with chefs and women cooking at home all over the Mediterranean, coaxing from them their most cherished recipes and cooking secrets. Her favorites appeared in her books, which refused to apologize for obscure ingredients or complex techniques—and so challenged Americans to become better cooks.
In 2010, I began to interview Paula for a potential biography. But something strange was going on with her mind; before long, she was diagnosed with dementia. Her illness inspired me to act: I assembled Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life, a culinary biography that honors Paula’s incredible life and highlights her contributions to American epicurean history.
Among the more unlikely details to emerge from our interviews is this: Paula once worked for The Paris Review. In the sixties, she and her husband lived in Paris for eight years; he worked at UNESCO and she took a part-time gig at the Review while she raised their two children. In the passage below, never before published, she reminisced with me about her time at the magazine.
When I lived in Paris in the 1960s, I worked for The Paris Review, issues 36 to 42, in the Paris office. I can’t remember why we had a Paris office. I guess it was in order to say that it was The Paris Review. But we did a lot, because George Plimpton didn’t feel like doing a lot of the work. So even though Plimpton ran part of the magazine in his home on Seventy-Ninth street, on the East Side by the river, ninety percent of the work was done in Paris, or at least the magazine was put together in Paris, so there was a lot to do, though it’s not like we did any of the writing.
I had to read submissions. Do you know I once turned down Angela Carter? I read something she had sent in, and I actually said, I hate this writer! Maxine Groffsky just threw it in the slush pile. She trusted me. Angela Carter, can you imagine? I have to live that down for the rest of my life. When I found out she was a really great writer, I felt like such a shit. I never should have been trusted after that.
That was actually an exception—usually I didn’t have the last say on anything. I opened the mail, I took out the mail. I loved reading the interviews, and I loved the art. I was less interested in poetry, frankly, but the interviews were fascinating. This was back when a lot of interviews were with artists like Jackson Pollock. I loved them.
A lot of what we were planning and working on never saw the light of day, because they decided in New York that it wasn’t what they wanted—everything had to be done by mail. People would come by all the time, Americans, young wannabe writers would hang out there, or walk in, and say, Ahh! I just love The Paris Review, I just wanted to see it. We had a little sign on the street, so there was always someone coming by. For me, it was a fun way of life, a way of getting out of the house—it’s not like I knew how to do anything to get a real job! Maxine paid me, so I had some worth, but not much.
Emily Kaiser Thelin is a writer, editor, and former restaurant cook. A two-time finalist for James Beard awards, and a former editor at Food & Wine, her work has also appeared in Oprah, Dwell, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.