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Paula Wolfert: Card Shark

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Monday was the 70th birthday of our untoppable—and unstoppable—contributing editor Paula Wolfert. Tina Ujlaki and I put together a care package for her from chefshop.com (you know how to tell if someone is quality? If you want to send them salt-packed anchovies for their 70th birthday). Then I gave Paula a call. I recently moved to Brooklyn, so we got to talking about what it was like when Paula grew up in Flatbush in the 1940s and '50s. Surrounded back then by Irish Catholics and Ashkenazi Jews, Paula says the only Protestants she knew were the Rockefellers she read about in the newspapers. Then one day she and some friends were playing in a Dutch Reformed churchyard when she met a nice Protestant girl from Red Hook named Loretta. The two became fast friends, and ended up attending Columbia together ("she took classes in computer science; I was supposed to be getting my ‘MRS’—a husband," Paula says). They roomed together, but neither could totally afford the rent, so they decided to host a weekly poker game. This was in 1956. The two would cook for the card players, and at the end of the night, they collected their percentage of the pool. "The house always wins!" Paula laughs. Just three years later, Paula would be in Morocco—with her husband—where she would gather the recipes for her first cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco. Nice to think it was all in a small way made possible by a little illicit gambling.

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