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Paula Wolfert and The Cooking of Southwest France

Paula Wolfert is the woman we know as so much more than a fellow member and guiding force here at the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. From our day to day brushes with Paula’s presence here in the forums, many can attest to Paula’s personality as a natural mentor and to her giving spirit. She gently encourages us all to move forward in our projects, individual and collective, as we strive to make a difference in the world of food and cooking.

Just a few years ago many of us would never have imagined having the opportunity to correspond directly with the legendary grand dame, curious writer, traveler and master cook who penned many of our dearest classics. Her volumes are examples of the best contemporary food writing and cookbooks on our shelves. Indeed, Paula’s accomplishments are recognized with the highest accolades: she has won the Julia Child Award, The James Beard Award, The M. F. K. Fisher Award, The Tastemaker Award and been a finalist for the Andre Simon Award. We are truly blessed to have her among us.


For those who are not familiar with Paula's influence in the English speaking realm of French cooking, Paula's original edition in 1983 of The Cooking of Southwest France was a first in many ways. Her work was the first to introduce to average American home cooks on a grand scale the concept of French regional cuisine. Not only was it an introduction, but a warm and friendly beckon for us to join her as she worked her way through the Southwest of France and its treasures. She eased our journey through her anecdotal, but at the same time thorough and rigorous approach to a careful selection of recipes from the Gascogne Languedoc and Guyenne.

Many of us cooked our way through Paula's original book, and we are delighted that she has taken the time to return to the region in her new edition. She has revisited, refined and expanded on the original tome -- continuing the stories she began in her original edition, adding 60 new recipes, and expanding her regional coverage to include the Auvergne. Some of us were chosen as recipe testers for the new volume, and many of us have begun cooking with the new edition already. We share notes on our experience cooking from this new edition in this thread.

Paula offers us insight into her lifelong approach to culinary writing:

    "The fox," you see,"knows many things," wrote the ancient Greek writer Archilochus, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." For all the fox's cunning, he is defeated by the hedgehog's one great defense---rolling himself up in a ball to protect himself on all sides with his coat of prickly quills.

    About fifty years ago, the British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, wrote an essay in which he placed writers into two camps. The foxes were people who pursued their ends from many directions at the same time. The hedgehogs were those who saw the world through the prism of a single organizing idea. Sir Isaiah didn't imply a value judgment. For example, he considered Dostoevski, Dante, Ibsen, and Proust, to be hedgehogs, and Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Moliere to be foxes. And of course every fox has a little hedgehog in him, and vice versa.

    In regard to my own work as a culinary writer, over the last thirty years, I definitely consider myself a hedgehog. Why? Because I view food through the lens of my love and idealization of the Mediterranean style of life.

Wolfert explains that "southwest France is very much part of the Mediterranean. Most French food isn't very forceful; it's delicate, complex and built on subtlety. But the southwest employs robust ingredients ---truffles, peppers, cepes and chicken and goose fat; hardly subtle ingredients. "It's Wolfert's style of cooking: country food with layers of taste, simple dishes that showcase the natural affinities of ingredients.

Susan Fahning (aka snowangel), Elie Nassar (aka foodman) and I warmly welcome you to participate in this eG Spotlight Conversation with Paula Wolfert as she smooths and shines her quills and comes forth to answer our questions about her life, vocation, and the recently released new edition of The Cooking of Southwest France, Recipes from France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine.

Welcome, Paula. Let this latest eG Spotlight Conversation begin!

To post a question, click "New Thread" at the top of this forum. Each question will be its own topic. Once a question has been posted, we ask that the membership refrain from any additional posts or commentary until Paula has had the opportunity to respond to the post directly. Once Paula’s response is up, the topic is open for in depth discussion by all members, and we warmly encourage followup conversation. Please note that this eG Conversation may be moderated, and your question may not appear as soon as you post it.

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