Books: The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook

A 1938 vegetarian Jewish cookbook gets a new life – and a translation from Yiddish.

Fania Lewando proves that Ashkenazi food is more than meat and potatoes. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fania Lewando proves that Ashkenazi food is more than meat and potatoes.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A restaurant owner, cookbook author and culinary instructor – all while remaining a vegetarian – Fania Lewando is the picture of today’s involved and dedicated foodie. The only catch? Lewando lived in Vilna, Lithuania, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This pioneering woman wrote a Yiddish- language cookbook in 1938 aiming to convince Jewish housewives that “food made from fruits and vegetables is far healthier... than food made from meat.”
More than 400 recipes in The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook – including for pickles, juices, wines and jams – work at proving that even vegetarians can have a wide, varied and colorful diet.
“From the humanitarian principle of tsar baaley khayim (not harming living creatures, the principle behind the vegetarian movement), it would be desirable to replace meat with a purely vegetarian cuisine,” Lewando writes in the book’s introduction, before warning cooks to rely only on her tested recipes and not to listen to others’ instructions. “I have the fullest satisfaction in the knowledge that my cookbook is practical and that it will be very useful to every housewife in her daily life.”
Lewando was a pioneer in many ways. She taught nutrition, she owned her own eatery, and she even served as a chef aboard a Polish ocean liner. Sadly, like 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews, Lewando and her husband were killed in the Holocaust. A rare copy of her book made its way to the YIVO Institute in New York in 2008. And today, her book and her memory are being given a new life with a translated edition by Eve Jochnowitz.
Lewando’s great-nephew, Efraim Sicher, writes in the book that its publication serves as a testament to a woman who “devoted her life to promoting Jewish vegetarian cuisine and educating Jewish women. It is also a testimony to the lost world of Jewish Vilna.”
Though Ashkenazi fare is typically maligned as consisting of just potatoes, onions and carrots, Lewando utilizes – and celebrates – a wide variety of vegetables in her book, from tomatoes to celery root, mushrooms, parsnips, leeks, peas, kohlrabi, cauliflower, Jerusalem artichokes, zucchini, sorrel, rhubarb and asparagus.
Flipping through the book is informative, educational and amusing. Some recipes may have you pondering the unusual taste buds of the Jews of Vilna, like a salad featuring pears, mushrooms, oranges, apples, eggs and peas. Lewando also suggests a beer soup made with egg yolks, sugar and honey; oatmeal soup with mashed carrots; prune and apple cholent with potatoes; and “cake filled with cabbage.” A recipe for cherry soup notes that it can be served with either “cheesecake or potatoes.”
There are hundreds of recipes for just about every combination of vegetables imaginable – though many are fairly self-explanatory, such as cooked beans tossed with scallions, lemon juice and olive oil; asparagus with bread crumbs and butter; mashed potatoes with butter and milk; and an entire chapter just on omelets.
Still, more than a few of the recipes Lewando presents are intriguing even to a modern cook, like kohlrabi stuffed with mushrooms, onions and bread crumbs; a soup of milk and cream flavored with celery root and parsley root; a yeast cake “crown” stuffed with candied orange peel, raisins and almonds; and a “challah charlotte”: layers of stale halla, crepes and apples encased in a custard.
Readers can also try out her recipes for items that we take for granted as store-bought these days, including soup nuts, crackers, jams and marmalades, yogurt and even a variety of wines – from grape to strawberry, currant and apple.
Lewando continues her health kick throughout the book, including recipes for “vitamin salad,” “vitamin soup” and “vitamin-rich compote,” and a chapter on vitamin juices. There is also a recipe titled “special bread for a stomachache,” which calls for 55 cups of flour and includes an editor’s note that it was not tested – for taste or for medical efficacy.
The book was translated and edited with a light hand, which means it retains much of the randomness and less-thanclear directions from the original. This makes the book a more authentic historical tome, but a slightly difficult book to cook from.
There’s a chapter titled “Cutlets,” which consists of – you guessed it – cutlets, made out of everything from chickpeas to cabbage, walnuts, beans, hard-boiled eggs, oats and more. Other chapters include “Turnovers,” “Blintzes,” “Schnitzels” (with cauliflower, carrot, green pea and cabbage options), and of course, “Miscellaneous.”
A further indication of Lewando’s limitations and historical setting is the extensive section of preserved foods, including sauerkraut, tomatoes, mushrooms, pickles, plums, pears and eggs.
Jochnowitz tested only a selection of the hundreds of recipes, and included notes throughout to make things easier for home cooks. It would be easy to let this volume stand as a historical reference, but cooking from it – with, granted, no guarantee of success – would be the greatest honor to Lewando’s work.
The book ends with the perfect postscript: excerpts from the guest book inscriptions at Lewando’s restaurant. The most famous figure to leave an inscription was the artist Marc Chagall, who wrote: “They say that the food here is delicious, but unfortunately I came with a delicate stomach and was only able to taste a tiny bit, and it was delicious nevertheless.”