Kitchen routine helps cookbook author with loss of memory

Special to The Washington PostNovember 12, 2013 

— Since her diagnosis earlier this year, Paula Wolfert, 75, swears she has simplified her cooking. “I try to cook something every few days, like practicing a musical instrument,” she says.

It’s a smart plan for someone like her, in the early stages of cognitive impairment, when organization problems can first appear. But Wolfert’s definition of “simple” has never been anyone else’s. Her eight seminal cookbooks on the foods of the Mediterranean are famous – some might say infamous – for their complexity, for challenging us to be better cooks.

Over her four-decade career, she would often test a few recipes a day. Meals for herself and her husband of 30 years, crime novelist Bill Bayer, could get eclectic: duck confit, a dish she popularized in 1983 with “The Cooking of Southwest France”; a Syrian dish spiked with aleppo pepper, a spice she introduced to American chefs in 1994 with “The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.”

On a recent weekday at her airy house here, she has pulled an apron over a gray-and black-striped scoop-neck tee. Her short chestnut hair is brushed away from her face, revealing brown eyes aglow with the rush of cooking good food. Her lunch menu looks just as eclectic and ambitious as ever. She has been revisiting favorite recipes, casually considering an anthology. Today’s include seared scallops with tangerine sauce from “The Cooking of Southwest France” (1983) and slow-cooked mushrooms from “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” (2009).

She washes her hands before giving the scallops a quick toss in their marinade, which includes parsley and thyme from her garden. Later, when she broils them, she’ll flip each scallop, sizzling hot, with her bare fingertips. (She still has the asbestos hands of a line cook, numb to heat.)

‘Follow my own recipes’

Then something unusual happens. She turns to “The Cooking of Southwest France,” lying open on the counter, and reads from her own recipe. “Bring to a boil and add cream,” she says, readying her measuring cups. When she is about to pour, she turns back to the book. “Is it a third of a cup or a half? I forget everything as soon as I read it.”

Wolfert has turned into a cook like the rest of us, judging by appearances. Rather like when Superman surrendered his powers to try life as a mortal, this new phase is giving her profound insight. She looks up from the book and laughs. “Now that I have to follow my own recipes, some of them are so hard!”

It’s good to hear her laugh again. For several years, Wolfert suspected something was wrong. In its earliest stages, Alzheimer’s disease is surprisingly hard to detect. The telltale proteins that may cause degeneration can be confirmed only by a brain sample taken at autopsy. For a living patient, doctors look to other signs, including memory loss and other difficulties in functioning. Yet the illness can affect the brain for up to two decades before symptoms are noticed. It’s common for patients, even doctors, to dismiss the first signs as aging or fatigue.

Finally, late last year her husband suggested that they have omelets for lunch. Wolfert drew a blank. “I said to Bill, ‘Wait a minute, how do you make an omelet?’”

Neurologists’ opinions

She saw two neurologists. Each had a different opinion. One said she had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease; the other diagnosed mild cognitive impairment, a form of dementia that can progress to Alzheimer’s. Time will tell which one she has, depending on how much she loses. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I know there’s something wrong. This isn’t the Paula that I used to know.”

Dementia is an unpredictable foe. There is no cure and no sure way to slow its progress. In 1983, New York University physician Barry Reisberg delineated seven stages to measure its progress. Wolfert has been told she appears to be at Stage Four, moderate cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that includes “greater difficulty performing complex tasks, such as planning dinner for guests,” and “forgetfulness of recent events.”

Thankfully, her long-term memories remain crystal clear. When she can’t remember how much cream to add to the tangerine sauce, she remembers where she discovered the sauce: On her first trip to Southwest France in 1978, from a rising-star Gascon chef named Jean-Louis Palladin.

“I had never seen food like his,” she recalls. “It was so vivid. And his restaurant was beautiful,” she says of La Table des Cordeliers, where, at age 28, Palladin became the youngest chef in history to win two Michelin stars. “He had a table for the poor in the dining room, where he served leftovers,” she recalls.

Then she notices that the mushrooms are scorching. “Oh, God, I’m burning things,” she says, and lowers the flame.

Changing her diet

Wolfert knows that her condition has no cure. But once she was given a diagnosis, she looked to food to help – not just to keep her mind engaged, but also to see whether superfoods could buy her time: “My feeling is, accept that it is what it is, but stall it by trying to do as much as possible.”

Wolfert cut back on carbs and gluten after hearing that they might hasten the progression of the illness. She has a light snack in the afternoons, often gluten-free crackers spread with coconut oil. She usually skips dinner, because she’s not hungry and for the supposed benefits of intermittent fasting. Lunch is light, usually seafood and vegetables, followed by an espresso and a square of dark chocolate, both of which might slow memory loss.

Is any of it working? The only evidence she can cite is that she looks and feels better than she has in years. “I know I’m not better, but I’m not getting worse,” Wolfert says.

While Bayer sets the table, Wolfert opens one of her two dishwashers to clean up before finishing the sauce.

The reduction is a throwback to an earlier time, and it sparks memories. As she watches the bright orange sauce bubble and thicken, citrusy scents float up and the recollections rush back. “I remember now! The spoon draws a line through the cream when it’s ready. I used to tell people, ‘You just catch a glimpse of the bottom of the pan!’”She shouts that line with the oratory and enthusiasm of Tony Robbins. Before Food Network, through the 1980s, Wolfert was a cooking star, teaching in up to 40 cities a year.

With Alzheimer’s, she is teaching again. She recently went public with her diagnosis after reaching out to the Alzheimer’s Association to see how she could help.

As she serves the meal, her husband quietly checks to make sure the cooking appliances have been turned off.

The mushrooms are a tad overcooked. But they also have a remarkable intensity from simmering on the stove for just under an hour, one of Wolfert’s simplest recipes.

She tastes the scallops. Her face brightens with the delight of someone who has just bumped into an old friend. “That’s Jean-Louis!”

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