Every now and then there’s a new book that calls to us from the past. A forgotten manuscript, newly rediscovered, that hums in our ear, “This is how we were then.”
Sometimes we reply in delight, as with What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. At other times, we are by turns confused, horrified, reverential, as with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the recently unearthed first draft of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Yet another new-old book has come to us recently. It hasn’t gotten as much attention, but its particular call from the past is no less powerful, both for what it tells us of its place and time, and for what we know, nearly eighty years later, of how that place and time came to an end.
The book is The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchens by Fania Lewando, lovingly translated, annotated and adapted for contemporary kitchens by Eve Jochnowitz, and published by Schocken Books.
Fania Lewando and her husband Lazar were the owners of a vegetarian restaurant in Vilna, the Jewish name for the city of Vilnius, whose nationality teetered between Poland and Lithuania in the years after World War I. Vilna was home to a Jewish community large and lively enough that at one time the city was dubbed the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was a cosmopolitan metropolis where the Haskalah, the secular Jewish “Enlightenment,” flowered, and a dynamic arts scene thrived. The famed YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, had its first headquarters there. The Lewandos’ cafe was a gathering place for the city’s Jewish intelligentsia, who appreciated her innovative vegetarian cuisine. Besides running her restaurant, Fania Lewando was a noted spokeswoman for the cause of vegetarianism and the then-young science of nutrition. She published her cookbook in 1938.
The next year, the Soviets took control of Lithuania; they were followed in 1941 by the Nazis. According to an essay in the new edition of Lewando’s book by Efraim Sicher, her great nephew, the Lewandos were likely captured by the Soviets while fleeing the Nazis, and probably killed soon afterward. The Jewish community of Vilna was obliterated like so many others.
But the YIVO had relocated to New York in 1940, before the Nazi occupation, and somewhere along the way, a copy of Lewando’s book wound up in its library. It sat there until a few years ago, when Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman discovered it. They showed a oopy to Joan Nathan, the Jewish food writer, who brought it to Schocken. Eve Jochnowitz, the Yiddishist and culinary ethnographer, had actually seen the book some years earlier at YIVO and had fallen under its spell. She was tapped for the project. The new volume is the result.
In it, the past speaks to us in a surprisingly contemporary voice. A lifetime before Michael Pollan coined his famous, “Eat food. Mostly plants,” Lewando was writing the first lines of her book: “It has long been established by the highest medical authorities that food made from fruits and vegetable is far healthier and more suitable for the human organism than food made from meat.” Indeed, she cooks up fruits and vegetables of all sorts in seemingly endless ways. While many of recipes are rooted in the Old World Ashkenazi palate (latkes, kugel, blintzes), several would be at home on the restaurant menus of today (cauliflower cutlets, for example, leek frittata, coffee ices, and marinated pears that are a lot like the sweet-sour gastriques).
But The Vilna Vegetarian is definitely of its time. The recipes are written in old-timey cookbook style; there are no ingredient lists; ingredients and measures are contained within the rather terse instructions, which assume that readers have basic kitchen skills. They also reflect the technology of the time; as Jochnowitz explains, no oven temperatures are listed because the coal and wood-fired ovens of the day couldn’t calibrate exact temperatures.
There are no photographs of the food in this book; instead, colorful botanical illustrations from the 1938 edition decorate its pages. It also includes essays from that period on the value of fruits and vegetables and Jewish vegetarianism, and a chapter of notes from the restaurant’s guest book written by Vilna luminaries, some of whom, we are told, survived, and some who did not.
The breadth of Jochnowitz’s work on this volume cannot be understated. In addition to translating from the Yiddish and parsing Lewando’s personal kitchen usage, she also converted the original metric measures to American cups and spoons, tested recipes, and added helpful notes for today’s cooks where necessary.
Most of the recipes can be prepared and enjoyed by contemporary readers. (Who among us wouldn’t enjoy a stuffed turnover or a homemade vegetable soup?) But some recipes will only be read with wonderment by 21st-century cooks, like the one for pickled apples that calls for lining a barrel with cherry leaves and dill, filling it with apples, adding buckets of boiling water, sugar, salt, and molasses to cover, and weighting the lid with “freshly washed stones.” Oh, and replenishing those buckets of sugar syrup daily for eight weeks.
I won’t be trying that one any time soon. But I am very glad to read about it. And glad, sad, and generally awestruck by the entire book, and by the voice of a woman who still calls to us so clearly: See, this is what it was like at my table.
If you would like to watch a video of Eve Jochnowitz preparing Fania Lewando’s Rice Dumplings Stuffed with Mushrooms while describing the process in fluent Yiddish (don’t worry—it has English subtitles) here’s a video from the blog, In Mol Araan. As the caption says,”I like the part where we add more butter. Also the other part, where we add more butter.”
If you would like to see what Vilnius looks like today (with stretches of cityscape that look like the photos might have been taken in Fania Lewando’s time—and some fleeting scenes from the local Holocaust museum) here is a video tour from The New York Times website that I came across while preparing this profile.
Originally published on TheWeiserKitchen.com