When the Past Sits at Your Dinner Table: 'The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook'

Fania Lewando wrote the first European vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish. Then the Nazis the came.

The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook

Publisher: Schocken
Length: 256 pages
Author: Fania Lewando
Price: $30.00
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-05

In 1938, cooking teacher, restaurant proprietress, and vegetarian Fania Lewando published a Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook. Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbokh: 400 Shpeizn Gemakht Oysshlislekh Fun Grinsn or, the Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively From Vegetables, was the first Yiddish-language vegetarian cooking manual published Europe.

Shortly after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Vilna fell under Soviet Union rule. The Nazis invaded soon afterward. We know Lewando and her husband Lazar tried to escape and were caught by Soviet soldiers. They were never heard from again.

Lewando’s cookbook also vanished. What happened next is reminiscent of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. In 1995, a copy of the Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively From Vegetables surfaced at an antiquarian book fair. Recognizing its value, a couple purchased it, then donated the copy to New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO contacted cookbook author Joan Nathan, who brought the book to Schocken Publishing. Seventy-seven years later, Lewando’s manuscript, newly translated and retitled, is available to everyone as The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook.

Readers expecting the chatty anecdotes, shiny photographs, and detailed instructions of modern cookbooks will be disappointed. This would be a shame, for The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook is best appreciated as a historical document of great interest. Understood thus, Lewando’s work can be appreciated for its many virtues rather than harshly judged by today’s vastly different standards.

Lewando worked within harsh limitations. Pre-war Poland was chilly, available vegetables few. No triply washed bags of mesclun, no canned artichoke hearts, no fresh cilantro. Lewando never tasted Meyer lemons or gritty Himalayan sea salt. In turning from chicken fat as a cooking medium, she had no recourse to artisanal olive oils, pomegranate molasses or verjus.

All of Lewando’s cooking transpired over coal or wood-fired stoves, a reality reflected in The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook’s crude temperature suggestions. Her handheld equipment was minimal: knives, box graters and di mashinke, or the "little machine": a food mill.

As a pioneering advocate of vegetarianism, Lewando bravely bucked centuries of Eastern European Jewish tradition. Platters of beef or chicken were central to Ashkenazi Jewish tables, signifying wealth, abundance, and celebration. For the poorest Jews, subsisting all week on potatoes and cabbage, Friday night supper meant at least a little chicken. The notion of voluntary vegetarianism was at best peculiar; at worst, it was an affront.

Yet Lewando wasn’t starting at zero. Kosher dietary law forbids mixing milk and meat at meals. The result is a rich repertory of meatless dishes, including an entire subset of parve, or neutral foods.

Many of the recipes in The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook are undeniably historical; less kindly, they are dated. Some of the nutritional information is quaintly inaccurate. Yet other material is startlingly current. Lewando extolled the benefits of raw fruits and vegetables, adding: "The skins of fruits and berries are especially important for the digestion process. This is particularly the case with blueberries."

Recipes for Rice With Mushrooms, Carrot Fritters and the entire omelet chapter remain tempting. Nor did Lewando neglect Jewish classics like poppy seed cookies, egg cookies (kichel), matzoh balls, latkes, and a host of kugels.

Translator Eve Jochnowitz deserves special mention. She gracefully negotiates Lewando’s culinary Yiddish, which borrowed from numerous geographic regions. Her sensitive annotations clarify the tricky places where Lewando’s expectations smack against reader ignorance. In a final favor to modern readers, Jochnowitz converted Lewando’s "decas"—decagrams—to cups, making the recipes workable in today’s kitchens.

That said, Lewando is very much a product of her era. Recipes are given in an abbreviated paragraph style with minimal instruction. Many cake recipes call for "as much flour as will absorb"/ Apple Bread requires "some apples". There are neither yields nor cooking times. There are no suggested pan sizes.

Lewando’s suggested recipe pairings vary from appetizing to historically curious. It's unlikely anyone will want Fried Summer Squash With Beet Gratin, but any Russian Jewish reader (ahem) will understand, if not eat, Sauerkraut Stewed With Sour Cream and Pease Porridge. Squash With Blackberries potentially repulses until you realize the recipe calls for sweet winter squash. Rice Dumplings with the suggested Tomato Sauce sounds lovely. Creamed Spinach served with Fried Bread Rolls will be wonderful come November’s freezing winds.

Lewando’s liberal hand with dairy leads inevitably to the fat content in her recipes. At a time when Jews cooked in chicken or goose fat, Lewando turned to butter, in amounts likely to horrify modern readers. Please recall Jewish vegetarian cuisine—indeed, most Western vegetarian cuisine—was in its infancy during the years Lewando worked. Everyone used what today are considered enormous amounts of fat. Further, these people weren’t parked in front of computers all day. Many were physically active in cold weather. Their homes were not centrally heated. They needed that sour cream or butter.

Appeal—what professionals call mouthfeel—also enters the picture. In the introduction to The New Revised Edition of the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Mollie Katzen, another Russian-Jewish vegetarian trailblazer, offers an explanation for all that butter, oil, and sour cream. Early Western vegetarianism was an unsophisticated cuisine, its preparers nervous. A lavish hand with the dairy ensured a tasty dish. It also dispelled fears of hunger or poor nutrition.

Rare is the cookbook that brings a reviewer to tears, but once I finished sobbing over Lewando’s horrific fate, my eyes filled again when I found "Crepe Kugel With Jam". Kugels are baked puddings, often featuring carrots, potatoes, or noodles. Here Lewando instructs readers to roll apples, raisins, and jam in crepes, or blintzes. One fills a baking pan with the rolled pancakes, then bakes them in a water bath.

But this recipe rang a bell. Grabbing Mollie Katzen’s The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, I found Blintz Soufflé, the creation of Louis Bardenstein, aka Bardy the Kosher Caterer. Bardenstein’s recipe calls for a rich egg-sour cream custard poured over those blintzes, but my goodness—here is a plate of Eastern European Jewish history, staring us in the face.

In the headnote for Blintz Souffle, Mollie Katzen describes Bardenstein as a beloved Rochester, New York caterer active during her childhood. As Katzen is now 65 years old, it isn’t a stretch to think Bardenstein, whose name is Eastern European, was Lewando’s peer in age and descent.

Spinach Pudding is less emotional but still fascinating. In an editorial note, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook editors cite Italian food expert Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who traces the dessert’s roots back to 18th Century Europe (1992, The Splendid Table). In another reference,The Book of Jewish Food’s Claudia Roden describes Torta di Mandorle e Spinaci, an "old Florentine recipe" that she hesitantly prepared and found surprisingly good.

Readers of Jennifer McLagan’s wonderful Bitter will recognize Beer Soup, while a recipe for Fried Green Peppers recalls pepperonata. The section devoted to marinated foods speaks to the Eastern European fondness for all things pickled, though the editors rightfully warn against using Lewando’s outdated instructions to preserve these items.

Readers interested in preparing Lewando’s recipes should make the attempt when time isn’t a concern. I made Carrot Fritters, or Little Carrot Schnitzels. In four steps, boiling carrots until soft, mash or process them into a batter with bread crumbs, eggs, butter, and salt. Form this into patties, fry in butter, and eat.

After decreasing the batter’s suggested two tablespoons of butter to one, I fried the patties in olive oil. They emerged a pretty orange and were so good I wolfed down three directly from the pan.

One need not be Jewish nor vegetarian to enjoy this piece of culinary history. The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook a treasure, its rediscovery cause for happiness. Yet that pleasure is tempered by the circumstances of our reading and Lewando’s tragic fate.

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