From Vilna, with Love: Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, Rediscovered

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 vilna vegetarianreply 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.

Fania Lewando cropped

Fania Lewando

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.

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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.”

 

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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

The Gastronomical She: The Art of M.F.K. Fisher

The last few decades have seen our attitude toward food change dramatically. We used to take it for granted. Sure, we stopped to eat it several times a day; we obsessed about its caloric content and its nutritionalMFK FIsher wolf value; we celebrated and mourned with it; in times of shortage or famine, it became the focus of our lives. But it wasn’t so long ago that food as a subject for artistic or intellectual examination was unheard of. Traditionally, when we studied history, we charted the movements of kings and generals, heroes, and sometimes, heroines. When we wrote poetry or sang songs, love was (and still is) our theme. In recent years, TV has given us celebrity chefs; restaurant culture and easy air travel have introduced us to exotic cuisines; and universities have recognized a field called culinary history. Still, this consideration of food as a “serious” subject is rather new. Plenty of people continue to think about food only when they’re deciding whether to bring home pizza or Chinese.

Imagine, then, the audacity of a 29-year-old author named M.F.K. Fisher, who in 1937 published a volume of essays on food. Serve It Forth combined history, memoir and meditation, a combination that would characterize Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s writing for the next half-century. Fisher “seized culinary writing” writes Joan Reardon in her lovely triple biography, M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table (Crown, 1994), “from the domestic scientists, the packagers and promoters, even the ‘gourmets,’ and with cunning and daring, she placed it at the center of those ‘ageless celebrations’ of life.,’” Serve It Forth was the product of Fisher’s days as a young student bride, first in Dijon, France, where she tasted the glories of French cooking, and later, in Los Angeles, where a part-time afternoon job left her free to spend mornings reading culinary texts in the Los Angeles public library.

This peripatetic education prepared her to chronicle the eating habits of ancient Greece and Rome, the role of the potato in everyday meals, her own experiences eating snails, Catherine de Medici’s culinary influence on France, dining alone, aphrodisiac foods and a poignant return to a much-loved restaurant. A strange mix, but one held together by Fisher’s unforgettable voice, now playful, now painterly, sometimes superior, and sometimes full of heartbreak for the crushed dreamers (including, at times, herself) that she observed in her travels. Whatever her mood, she never doubted the sensuality and the sacredness of eating.

Here is Fisher on tangerines peeled and left for a few hours on top of a radiator in a sparsely furnished apartment: “. . . I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately, under the MFK Fisherteeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume.” And here she is on the potato: “Baked slowly, with its skin rubbed first in a buttery hand, or boiled in its jacket . . . it is delicious. Salt and pepper are almost always necessary to its hot moist-dusty flavour. Alone or with a jug of rich cool milk or a chunk of fresh Gruyere, it fills the stomach and the soul with a satisfaction not too easy to attain.”

Word pictures like these pop out on every page, not only in Serve it Forth, but in the subsequent volumes: Consider the Oyster, published in 1941, which touches on everything from the oyster’s love life to the oyster loaf at Fisher’s mother’s boarding school; 1942’s How to Cook a Wolf, a wartime prescription for coping with ration cards and shortages; 1943’s The Gastronomical Me, an autobiography told in food memories; and 1949’s An Alphabet for Gourmets. These five books, collected in 1954 in a celebrated volume called The Art of Eating, are probably her best known, but her output was far greater; before her death in 1992, Fisher produced 28 books, including a much-praised translation of French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste.

My favorite is The Gastronomical Me, which begins with Fisher’s girlhood in California, where her grandmother’s delicate digestion ruled the dinner table, and goes on to recall her culinary awakening in Dijon, the break-up of her marriage to Al Fisher, her love affair with the painter, Dillwyn Parrish, his slow death a few years later of Buerger’s disease and her subsequent travels—all juxtaposed against memories of the food she ate. (She would marry and divorce once more, and have two daughters, but these events are chronicled in other books.)

At the beginning of The Gastronomical Me, Fisher explained herself: “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, about love, the way others do?. . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it. . . . There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

Nearly 75 years later, in an age whose very religion is fear of fat and carbs, and fear of food in general, those words take a new, more urgent dimension. Unlike so many of us, Fisher never took food for granted, and her message is as meaningful today as it was when she wrote it.

 

 

Hot Comfort: An Adoption Story

Is Chinese baby formula dairy or soy based? The question occurred to me so suddenly and with such force that I had to check myself to make sure that I hadn’t blurted it aloud. But no. The other parents-to-be sitting in the meeting room in the offices of Spence-Chapin, the venerable New York City adoption agency, were listening undisturbed to our social worker, who was explaining yet another item in the mountain of paperwork we had to complete before we would be put on a waiting list that would eventually result in a trip to China to meet our longed-for daughters. I tried to listen, too, and to take notes, but I couldn’t help picturing an innocent babe, placed into my arms fresh from the orphanage, the only home she’d ever known. Would she like the formula that I’d bring from America for her? Would she recoil at its unfamiliar scent? Oh, God, what if she hated it? What if, in our first hours and days together, when she’d be assaulted by newness at every turn, I couldn’t offer her the comfort of a familiar mouthful of food?

I pictured my baby wailing and hungry and wondered what on earth I would do if that picture became a reality. Resuming my note-taking, I tried to focus on the form under discussion. But the questions stayed with me, and at the end of the session I approached the social worker.

“Is Chinese formula dairy or soy-based?” I asked. “Which should we bring? Will our babies take to American formula?”

“The Chinese formula is dairy based, and most of the babies drink the American just fine,” she answered. “But if your child doesn’t, you can buy formula there and mix it with the formula you bring with you. Then you can gradually reduce the amount of the Chinese. That way she’ll get used to it. By the time you come home, she’ll probably be completely happy with the American brand.”

Oh.

So much for that mom-to-be anxiety attack. But it got me to thinking: If an infant has been taking a particular kind of nourishment for her whole, albeit short, life, what happens when you change that form of nourishment suddenly? To put it in another way, do babies have comfort food?

So much has been made of that term in recent years. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese have been rhapsodized and eulogized so often, you’d think they were ambrosia. Of course, what’s comfort to one palate is exotic—or appalling—to another. My Argentinean friend speaks lovingly of the blood sausage and tripe, but he gags at the mere mention of root beer, my childhood favorite. For some souls out there on this small planet, comfort food is the roasted, carefully browned rat that I saw for sale at a street market outside Bangkok. (A case of chacun a son goût if ever there was one.) But while the foodstuff might vary, the idea is the same no matter where you go—comfort food is the food of home. It’s what we ate in our earliest experience of the restorative powers of the table, before, well, whatever came afterward.

I thought about this as I drove home from the agency with my folders of paperwork: Do babies develop food preferences? Can they form taste memories even as their first teeth are coming in? In short, can they have comfort food?

A few months later in China, my child answered my question—and it had nothing to do with baby formula. It happened on the third night after I got Jessica. We were settled into our hotel in the capital city of the province where she was born, waiting for all the official paperwork necessary to finalize her adoption. On that evening, my sister (who had accompanied me to China) and I went down to a late supper in the hotel dining room, with baby Jessica in her stroller. We were dining late because my newly acquired eight-month-old had had a late nap. When she woke up, I had fumbled my way through a diaper change and her dinner—a bottle of formula mixed with rice cereal, some puréed peas and mashed bananas—which, despite my lack of finesse, she seemed to enjoy. The peas necessitated a thorough sponge bath, and when that was done, we dressed her again and set off for our own meal. It was after nine. By that time, we didn’t feel like anything complicated, so we just ordered big bowls of noodle soup.

The dining room was tranquil and nearly empty, and the three of us sat companionably waiting for the food, Jessica content with a full tummy, or so I thought. But when the waitress came to our table with two steaming bowls, my tiny baby let out a series of large, loud screams.

Our few fellow diners turned to stare. In the three days I had known this child, such a thing had never happened. Was she suddenly sick? In pain? Just cranky? After a few moments of new-mommy terror, I realized the obvious. She wanted the soup. A one-page “bio” of my baby that had come from her orphanage had mentioned that her diet included soup, but the information had been sketchy, and I was a strict and nervous follower of my baby books. These advised introducing single foods, not blends; the better to identify the cause in case Baby had an allergic reaction. So Jessica had been drinking formula mixed with rice cereal and eating simple baby-food purées and mashed bananas.

My heart was overflowing. This tiny being, so trusting and innocent in the face of everything new—new mommy, new auntie; a new crib after so many months spent in the orphanage issue; the new surroundings of the hotel, with its shiny brass fixtures and mirrored halls; rides in elevators with doors that opened and closed; rides on buses with their smells of diesel fuel; a new stroller with belts and buckles; forays in that stroller over bumpy sidewalks to vast green parks and bustling department stores; new clothes and new diapers; new toys—almost everything she had encountered over the past three days was cosmically different from what she had experienced for the first months of her life. Yet, she had greeted each new phenomenon with smiles and coos. And now she smelled soup and saw the big bowls, and she knew what it was, and she wanted it.

I blew on it to cool it and spooned a bit into her mouth. Instantly, she was calm. We shared the rest of the bowl. How powerful, I thought, was the appeal of something delicious, even for so tiny a person.

When we came home to Connecticut, I made a big pot of my mother’s chicken noodle soup—my own comfort food, but not so very different from the noodle soup we’d shared in China. My daughter dove in, eating the noodles with her fingers.

And now I know: Babies surely do have comfort food. For mine, it was soup. And not age or language or nationality—nothing—could stop her from trying to taste it.

Copyright Karen Berman 2012. Permission is required to reproduce part or all of this essay.

Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.