Jim Poris / October 1999
Food Arts presents the October 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Paula Wolfert, the cookbook author whose excavations of deeply ingrained food traditions from one end of the Mediterranean to the other have drawn attention to a part of the world whose culinary popularity shows no sign of abatement. From Tangiers to Tbilisi, from Aleppo to Auch, Wolfert has done the hard miles to peasants' homes and the easy ones to starred restaurants in order to unlock the essence of a vast, diverse region for English-speaking chefs and home cooks.
"My life seems to revolve around finding new recipes—food with plenty of flavor that lingers in the mouth," Wolfert has said. "Such food appeals to all my sense; every nuance has a meaning."
Her books anticipated the rush to fold the Mediterranean culinary spirit into the American mainstream. She opened doors to North Africa with Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973), Aquitaine with The Cooking of South-West France (1983), and Byzantium with The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (1994). She conducted a cook's tour of Med Rim countries in Mediterranean Cooking (1976), which was updated in 1994, and considered one of the region's more healthful appeals in Mediterranean Grains & Greens (1998).
"I've always been drawn to the Mediterranean Myth, the ideal, shared by many, of a robust, simple, and sensual life far from the maddening crowds of our competitive North Atlantic culture," she wrote in her favorite cookbooks, Mostly Mediterranean (1988, originally published as Paula Wolfert's World of Food).
Wolfert digs for recipes with the glee of an archaeologist and then presents them in head notes written with the clinical eye of a cultural anthropologist and the descriptive powers of a born storyteller. She delves for the authentic and meaningful in food, and her sense of context, of time, and of place lends readers a trustworthy hand to grasp as they step into unknown worlds.
"I like truthful food, and I like to think that I write truthful recipes," Wolfert says. "Food doesn't stand alone. A recipe is like a picture that needs a frame that tells you something about it. You have to set the scene in order to have someone make and eat the recipe you're presenting."
A native of Brooklyn, Wolfert worked with Dione Lucas and James Beard before shipping out on a freighter for Tangiers in 1959, the first of three extended stays in Morocco. William Bayer, the crime fiction writer and now her husband, encouraged her to parlay her food experiences and Moroccan sojourns into a cookbook. She first found her literary voice in Morocco, and now has perfect Mediterranean pitch.
"I like to think my recipes are thought out, that people use them to get an idea of how ingredients are used in other parts of the world," says Wolfert. Deeper treks into her proclaimed territory will turn up in next year's Mediterranean Slow and Easy. "There are still things to find," she proclaims. And find them she will.