A diagnosis of an early stage of Alzheimer's disease hasn't stopped cookbook author Paula Wolfert's decades-long career with food. But it has changed the direction.
The 76-year-old Wolfert, renowned for classics like "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," has been diagnosed with a variant of Benson's syndrome, a rare condition related to Alzheimer's.
That was the end of following the kind of complex, meticulous recipes for which she's known. But it was the beginning of looking at food in terms of healing, rather than hedonistic properties, as well as speaking frankly about the disease in hopes of encouraging others who think they might have a problem to get tested, and treated, sooner rather than later.
"What I tell everybody is that denial is not an option," she says.
Talking to Wolfert on the phone from her home in Northern California you're prepared to feel sad, or at least wistful. But though she occasionally searches for a word, what you come away with is an impression of robust enthusiasm for her new mission.
"I loved being in food. I spent 50 years as a career. I did all the things I wanted to do and now I've taken that same energy -- I wouldn't say I was taking my knowledge of food -- but I'm taking that same energy, and putting it into being proactive and trying to help myself stay stable," she says.
Along with researching foods that may help her stay mentally sharp, Wolfert has made some informational videos for the Alzheimer's Association. And she's got some allies in the chefs who have followed her work over the years. On June 26, seven California chefs are putting on a dinner and silent auction benefit in Oakland to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association.
The dinner, at which Wolfert will be a guest, is inspired by her achievements in food and her work encouraging people to get tested if they notice early signs of memory loss, says Russell Moore, who is hosting the event at his Camino restaurant.
"The fact that she is speaking out about Alzheimer's is just really wonderful," says Moore, whose own mother died of Alzheimer's. Moore, who got to know Wolfert first through her books and then in person, isn't surprised to see Wolfert taking on Alzheimer's full-tilt. "It's her approach; she's all or nothing," he says.
For Wolfert, the first signs of trouble were "so many little things," like reading a book or watching a TV show and then immediately forgetting it. Then it got to the point that she'd read a paragraph in a newspaper and couldn't remember what she'd just read.
She got tested and diagnosed. Then she began researching what kinds of foods might help or hurt mental acuity, using the same type of determination she once used to hunt down the best and most specific way of making the foods of the Mediterranean and Southwest France.
Some studies have suggested that a heart-healthy diet may lower risks for Alzheimer's disease or slow the rate of age-related mental decline, but evidence is mixed and inconclusive.
Wolfert spent almost a year perfecting a smoothie recipe which she makes in batches every two weeks.
It's quite the process, starting with bunches of kale and other leafy greens, lightly boiled, and going on to include blueberries, coconut and MCT oil (a type of oil generally made by processing coconut and palm kernel oils), protein powder, cinnamon, and a host of other ingredients.
"It doesn't taste bad but it doesn't taste great, either," is Wolfert's review. "I don't care. I want to get it out of the way so I can have a great and memorable lunch with a hunk of protein, vegetables, salad, some aged goat cheese and a short glass of red wine."
Good food's still a part of her life; it's just not the No. 1 priority anymore. "I loved good food. I appreciated good food. Do I lust for it now? No. I had to transition my brain to try and keep myself stable," she says.
And there are other tricks and techniques. Now if she wants to read something and remember it she'll read aloud. It's just another coping mechanism in a campaign fought day by day.
"Nothing has happened to me," she says, "that's going to get me down yet."