Book Reviews

The Vilna Vegetarian – History in Your Kitchen


The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook

Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen

Written by Fania Lewando, Translated by Eve Jochnowitz

Published by chef and restauranteur Fania Lewando in Yiddish in Vilna in 1938, this cookbook deserves to be recognized as an essential historical document of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Lewando was a noted chef, restaurant owner, food educator, and advocate for the nutritional and tasty advantages of a vegetarian diet. Her book offers an intimate portrait of the Jewish home kitchen in Lithuania and Poland before the destruction of these communities in the Holocaust.

Lewando addresses her book “to the housewife” with the hope that it will “be useful…in her daily life”(4). It features dozens of recipes for dishes familiar to the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cook, with entire sections devoted to blintzes, kugels, latkes, and Passover foods. Following her direction that “everything can be made into food”(4), the readers can meander through the agricultural calendar of the seasons, from the freshest radishes and cucumbers to strawberry wine and sour cherry preserves. The color illustrations, adapted from the pictures on vegetable seed packets that were sold in Europe and Palestine in the 1930s, add an almost surreal beauty in the plants and bilingual labels that they present.

Included in this edition are excerpts from the guestbook at Lewando’s restaurant, with notes from notable patrons, including Marc Chagall. The “Biographical Sketches” for these patrons are an amazing introduction to the Jewish artistic, literary and political communities of prewar Europe.

The book’s translator, Eve Jochnowitz, documents her process in the Preface, and clarifies both the linguistic and culinary challenges that anyone who actually wants to use the recipes in a modern kitchen might encounter. As she describes the “elliptical, telegraphic style of prewar cookbooks”(xxxi), she indicates her desire to maintain the authenticity of Lewando’s voice and techniques. Most helpful are her notes about oen temperature and adaption of ingredient measurements from weight (decagrams) to volume.

There is an emotional element to this book in the sadness that it should have been a treasured heirloom for thousands of Eastern European Jewish families. And there is also the celebration that Lewando, her work, and the culinary culture of Eastern European Jewry has been given new life for future generations.

At least one recipe has earned a spot at our family’s seder this year, and I am looking forward to posting some more about the results of these experiments 🙂

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