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Food writer Paula Wolfert reflects on cooking to cope with Alzheimer’s

November 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Award-winning cookbook author Paula Wolfert can't remember all of the ingredients in her recipes anymore, but she still knows how her dishes should taste. Hoping to delay the effects of Alzheimer's disease, Wolfert copes by continuing to cook. Judy Woodruff reports on why Wolfert wants more people to declare their memory loss.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now for another in our Thanksgiving week food series: a profile of food writer and cookbook author Paula Wolfert, as she calls on her culinary skills to battle back against Alzheimer’s.

Paula Wolfert has the hands of someone who’s been cooking a long time.

PAULA WOLFERT, chef: What I’m going do is, I’m just going to fry this for flavor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the kitchen of her Sonoma, Calif., home, Wolfert is preparing a cauliflower recipe she loves.

PAULA WOLFERT: This is an Armenian dish taught to me by a very famous Armenian cook. I actually like the dish because it’s so simple to make.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 75-year-old Wolfert has been writing about Mediterranean food for four decades. She authored nine cooking books and has won numerous awards, including five James Beards.

Wolfert made her mark long before the rise of the modern-day celebrity chefs, but her commitment to authentic recipes and ingredients still influence many in the culinary world today.

PAULA WOLFERT: I like real food. I’m not a chef who makes up dishes. That’s today’s world.

I was interested in real food of the countries that I had visited. And I had visited all the countries of the Mediterranean by the time I got around to writing about the food. And in writing about the food, you have to explain the people.

Now, at that time, people didn’t do that very much in cookbooks. They just tried to make it look fast and easy and just get in there and make it. But I was interested in how they really made the food.

This is the very first clay pot I ever bought. And I saw this, and I said to the woman, what is this? And she said, it’s tripière. And I said, what’s a tripière. And she says, it’s to cook’s tripe. I said, what’s tripe?

I think I was 19. I think I was 18. I didn’t know what tripe was. You see, you put all the food in here. I remember, Tunisia, there was about 12 women in the room and I said in French, who makes the best something. I can’t remember the dish. And I could see all the heads turn. The same thing in Greece. The same thing everywhere, in Sicily.

I always got a bunch of women together, and then I would ask about rare dishes. And then I said, I want that — that’s what I want to learn.

What should I have for low gluten?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most Friday mornings, Wolfert can be found browsing the Sonoma farmer’s market.

PAULA WOLFERT: This is the best food in the country. The growing season is longer. The quality is here. The farmers care. For a cook, this is heaven.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wolfert lives with her husband, Bill Bayer, a bestselling crime fiction writer. Several years ago as she was touring the country to promote her most recent book, Wolfert says she started to suspect she was having neurological problems.

PAULA WOLFERT: I knew there was something wrong. I just wasn’t sure what it was. But I had memory problems. I didn’t understand sometimes when people questioned me with complicated questions even about things that I wrote about myself in a book I just finished.

The first neurologist said is it’s mild cognitive impairment. But she did send me to this big scientist, because he does big tests, you know, these trials. And he read it and he said, no, no, no, that’s Alzheimer’s.

BILL BAYER:  When Paula first started telling me, she says, I’m worried, I think I’m losing my mind, I can’t remember anything.

I was in denial, and I think most of the people who knew her. There was one time she came up and she said, you know, I forgot how to make an omelet. She was standing in front of the stove. It was a very poignant time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wolfert began reading everything she could about trying to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, and she turned to the thing she knows best to wage her battle: food.

PAULA WOLFERT: The kale, the avocado, the blueberries, the coconuts, these are the main ingredients.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every morning, Wolfert assembles a shake chockful of superfoods and supplements she believes are helping stave off further cognitive decline.

Some of the ingredients have well-known health benefits, like leafy greens and nuts. Some have not been proven scientifically to boost brain function, like coconut oil. But Wolfert says she’s never felt better.

PAULA WOLFERT: It is tough going, because it’s not delicious. I didn’t make this to be delicious. I make this to be nutritious. My grandmother told me — my grandmother told me during the Second World War, we were sitting in the vegetable garden. She said, if you want to win a war, you have got to be willing to fight. This is how I fight.

BILL BAYER: Alzheimer’s is just a crushing word. You don’t want to hear that word. But I have been incredibly impressed by the way she’s handled this, because I think of how I might have handled it, and I don’t think with anywhere near the kind of courage that she’s shown.

PAULA WOLFERT: I have to look at my own recipe because I can never remember anything. Lightly brown. Stir in the tomatoes, crushed red pepper, OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wolfert still occasionally cooks these days, but she now relies on her own cookbooks.

PAULA WOLFERT: I can’t remember what I read two minutes after I read it. That’s a real problem. I know what the dish is supposed to taste like. I just don’t remember the amounts. I have to check the proportions, and I can’t — I can’t remember. I can’t remember from going there to here and back again.

I just — it’s just — it’s not fair that these things happen, but they do, so I just to what I have to, do what I can. If this works in making me nice and healthy, I will be buying it all the time.

BILL BAYER: Who knows what the future holds and how this will play out. I try not to think too much about it, but, sure, we discuss it, too. What will the future be? That’s what’s so scary about this, and that’s what everyone is very conscious of, because your memory is your self and your ability to recognize and ability to think.

I miss the testing years, when you would be developing a wonderful dish.

(CROSSTALK)

BILL BAYER: I understand why they’re over.

PAULA WOLFERT: My husband, every once in a while, I couldn’t eat like you. I would rather die. I said, no, you wouldn’t. , you wouldn’t. I want to be here as best I can, and I can’t do it about food. I did that for 50 years. That’s fine.

I loved it. I loved every moment of it. I love my friends. I love Alice Waters. But that isn’t where my head is right now. My head is with my children, my husband, my friends, and sharing with the Alzheimer’s Association whatever I can share, because this is the most important thing I want to say. The shame that people have about their memory loss is — and the denial that exists and their friends saying, oh, everybody has — you know, it’s senior moments, forget it.

And by the time they finally become like the old ladies or old men become, it’s too far. You can’t help — those people can’t be helped. It’s too late. It’s too late. We have to come out the way people with HIV came out, the way people with cancer came out. We’re not going to get enough money from the government or from anybody else unless we stand there and say, hey, I’m not an old zombie. I’m me, and I need help, and all the people around me who are suffering the way I am, we need help.

But we have to come out and say it. We’re worried. We need to do something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re cheering you on, Paula.

Wolfert says she plans to do something by becoming a volunteer advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association. Her doctors say they haven’t seen signs of any further cognitive decline in the past six months.