In 2007 Diane Wolff, an Asian scholar about to move from California to New York City, got a call from her mother: Dementia had made it hard to take care of herself. Couldn't Diane move to Florida instead of New York? "My mother was beautiful and headstrong, and even in her old age I thought of her like Scarlett O'Hara," says Wolff. "She needed me, and I packed up and moved to Florida."
In 2010, however, her mother's dementia led to a swallowing disorder called dysphagia. When Wolff tried to source soft foods, or recipes for those with dysphagia, she came up virtually empty handed. "Commercially available pureed foods were horrible. One caregiver compared them to dog food, and I think that was being kind."
Working with dieticians and speech pathologists, Wolff — who cared for her mother until her death in 2013 — began to develop a suite of techniques and recipes for pureeing delicious, nutritious foods, from pizza to roast chicken. Today she is known as "The Queen of Puree." With 12 self-published books — including The Essential Puree: The A to Z Guidebook — a blog, and a busy schedule training caregivers and medical professionals, she is helping pioneer a new approach to an increasingly common disorder. The essence: simple, intensely flavorful food that is easy on the throat and packed with good nutrition.
Each year 1 in 25 adults experience a swallowing disorder. Dsyphagia has many causes — ranging from dementia to stroke, surgery and neurological disorders — but no matter the origin, the ability to safely consume foods is essential, according to speech pathologist David Fagen, at Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte, Fla. Some 60,000 dysphagia sufferers die each year, mostly from aspiration pneumonia, which is caused when food or saliva is inhaled into the lungs. Those with dysphagia can also lose interest in eating if foods are too bland or swallowing is too difficult, leading to weight loss and poor nutrition.
Wolff says there are essential tricks to a successful puree. One key is the careful application of flavor through sauces. "When you puree a food," she explains, "you increase the surface area by a factor of thousands, and you lose flavor. It tastes bland. Sauce becomes the all-important medium to carry flavor. A simple half-cup of sauce can make a puree delicious."