The Woman who Loved Vegetables
A long-lost cookbook captures the life and recipes of Fania Lewando, Vilna’s vegetarian devotee
By Sue Tomchin
With the exception of for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, meat dishes have traditionally been the stars of the Ashkenazi Jewish holiday and special occasion table.
In the 1930s, in Vilna, a bastion of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and home to 55,000 Jews, a dynamic and visionary woman, Fania Lewando, dared to challenge this meat-centric mentality. She opened a popular vegetarian restaurant, published a vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish, and ran a cooking school espousing vegetarian principles at a time when anti-Semitic measures were limiting the availability of kosher meat.
Fania and her husband Lazar perished during the war and her cookbook all but vanished. In 1995, however, a couple at an antiquarian book fair discovered a copy, purchased it and then donated it to YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, the foremost repository for books and artifacts tied to the Jewish community of prewar Europe. YIVO volunteers Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman saw the book six years ago and pushed to get it translated and published.
Now, a new generation interested in healthy eating can recreate Fania’s homey recipes and glimpse a lost world. The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (Schocken, $30) has been translated and annotated by Eve Jochnowitz, a culinary ethnographer, chef, baker, and Yiddish instructor. Jochnowitz has adapted the measurements from weight to volume and edited the recipes to make them usable in the contemporary kitchen, while still preserving Lewando’s “unique voice.” Colorful illustrations of seed packets with plant names in both Yiddish and English are scattered among the book’s 400 recipes.
Jewish food doyenne Joan Nathan provides an engaging foreword. She played an important role in bringing the project to fruition by introducing Mazur and Waxman to her editor at Schocken, a division of Random House. With manuscript in hand, the two women had approached Nathan at a workshop she was leading. The author immediately embraced the importance of the book.
The comforting classics of the Ashkenazi pareve (neutral) and milchig (made of or derived from milk products) repertoire are all here, from borscht to blintzes, kugel to latkes. There are creative veggie-based versions of cholent, meatloaf, kishke, kreplekh and even of Wiener Schnitzel (made with cauliflower, not the traditional veal) and paté (made with spinach instead of goose or chicken livers). Also included are an array of enticing soups, both hot and cold, and promising frittatas and omelets (an asparagus version of the latter sounds delicious). Looking for ways to prepare the rhubarb, beets or mushrooms you bought too much of at the farmer’s market? How about rhubarb compote, hot Ukrainian borscht or blintzes filled with mushrooms? Lewando’s baked goods include a Shortbread Cake with Farmer’s Cheese, Poppy Seed Cookies and Cake with Strawberries (the latter are baked between two layers of dough) and she offers a variety of fruit-based desserts including compotes and sorbets.
An essay about Lewando and prewar Vilna from her great-nephew, scholar Ephraim Sicher, is included in the book. Her restaurant was a popular meeting place for Jewish celebrities, who “gathered and talked about art and politics,” he writes. The book even includes excerpts from the restaurant’s guest book featuring comments from such luminaries as painter Marc Chagall and beloved Yiddish poet Itzik Manger.An advocate for healthy eating, Lewando was “active in teaching local Jewish women the fine points of correct nutrition in her dietary school,” Sicher writes, and even traveled to England in an attempt to “interest the food manufacturer H.J. Heinz…in her recipes.” She served as a chef on a luxury cruise across the Atlantic, accompanied by a rabbi providing kashrut supervision.
Despite the fact that they had relatives in the U.S., the Lewandos were denied an immigration visa because of a leg wound Lazar had suffered when the Soviets invaded Poland in 1920. When the Nazis invaded Vilna in June 1941 and began murdering the Jewish population, the couple attempted to flee, but were captured by Soviet soldiers. They died sometime thereafter.
Thanks to The Vilna Vegetarian, Fania’s recipes and passion for a vegetarian diet can reach a new audience.