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2018 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Paula Wolfert

Debbie Koenig

May 03, 2018

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2018 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Paula Wolfert

The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America.

If there is a theme to celebrated cookbook author Paula Wolfert’s life, it’s the search for the other. “When everyone else was going in one direction,” she says, “I always asked, ‘What’s over there?’” 

Wolfert’s natural curiosity led her to cross paths with culinary and literary luminaries. As a 16-year-old freshman at Columbia University, she hung out in Greenwich Village with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. As a young newlywed, she took cooking classes with Dione Lucas, the first woman to host a cooking show in America. Not long after, she cooked for and with James Beard himself—her first job in food.

In 1959, Wolfert and her then-husband moved to Tangier, the hub of the Beat generation, and it was there that she became a food writer. In an essay for an early issue of Saveur magazine, she recalled her first meal there: “a couscous flavored with saffron, golden raisins, and sweet, long-cooked onions cut into wing-like shapes.” A version of that dish appeared in her first cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, which came out in 1973—a time when most Americans had never heard of couscous, never mind eaten it. That book also introduced us to such now-commonplace foods as preserved lemons, harissa, and tagines.

Wolfert went on to write eight more books about the foods of the Mediterranean, all of which are considered classics. An early proponent of the Mediterranean diet with a rigorous desire for authenticity, she has had a profound influence on the way Americans cook. Wolfert has won at least a dozen awards for her books and other writings, including five previous James Beard Awards.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with “dementia, probable Alzheimer’s.” That diagnosis prompted Emily Kaiser Thelin, who had edited Wolfert’s writing at Food & Wine magazine, to begin work on a biographical cookbook called Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life. When Thelin launched a Kickstarter for the project, word spread quickly throughout the food world. Colleagues, friends, and fans leapt to show their love for Wolfert. The venture reached its goal in just a few days, and ultimately more than 1,000 people pledged money and support.

Since her diagnosis, Wolfert has become an Alzheimer’s activist, repurposing her quest for the other to promote the most current scientific research, and doing everything possible to forestall the progress of the disease. That includes maintaining a strict ketogenic diet, for which she abstains from most carbohydrates. “One thing I’d love to do again, and now I can only do this in my head, is handmade couscous,” she says. “Hand-rolled grains.” 

As much as she misses the dish that launched her career, Wolfert refuses to look backwards. “It’s important to me that I live in the now,” she says. “I can’t be that person any more, so I do what I can to be the best that I can be.”

Learn more about the 2018 James Beard Awards.

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Debbie Koenig is a freelance writer and editor covering topics on food and travel. She is based in New York City.