The unprecedented Jewish vegetarian cookbook published in Vilnius in 1938 has just been republished for the first time in 77 years. It would have been lost forever if it wasn't for the efforts of two students who met at a lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
The story can be traced back to 1887 and Warsaw, where Fania Lewando was born into a Jewish family. Eventually, after meeting her husband Lazar, she moved to Vilnius, where they founded Elaine’s of Vilnius – a luxury restaurant serving exquisite vegetarian Jewish dishes. The restaurant is said to have been rather unaffordable for the average person but was a place where important Vilnius intellectual and artistic elites met, with Marc Chagall and Itzik Manger (a prominent Yiddish poet) being regular customers. Running a restaurant wasn’t Fania Lawnedo’s only occupation. She founded a dietary school, gave lectures, and even worked as a chef aboard a Polish ocean liner.
In 1938, years into successfully managing her restaurant, Fania Lewando published a revolutionary cookbook. While Eastern European Jewish cuisine was for ages based on meaty dishes, the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook comprised more than 400 recipes without a gram of flesh. From starters and soups through main dishes, garnishes, finishing with desserts and drinks, Fania Lewando revolutionised Jewish cuisine and pioneered the idea of a healthy and meat-free lifestyle. The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook is not, however, a simple translation of Eastern European Jewish cuisine into a vegetarian form. It consist of many original recipes such as vegetarian chickpea cutlets, Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) soup, leek frittata, puddings, cake glazes, and even wines!
Fania Lewando’s string of successes came to an end when World War II broke out and she was forced to flee. Traces of her are lost forever. The last time she and her husband were seen was in 1941, when the German Army seized Vilnius and turned it into a ghetto. They were reportedly captured by the Soviet Army, but never resurfaced.
The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook would have been lost forever if it hadn’t been for Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman, who were taking classes at the Institute for Jewish Research and after being presented the book, fell in love with it so much that they became desperate in their efforts to republish it in America. They popularised the book as much as they could, raised $20,000, persuaded acknowledged Yiddish translator Eve Jochnowitz to translate it into English and even ‘stalked’ famous cookbook author Joan Nathan to give her copy of the book and get a chance to present it to a publishing company.
Thanks to their successful efforts, the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook was republished in May 2015 by Shocken Books with a foreword by Joan Nathan. The edition, apart from the original text and images, contains a selection of entries from the guestbook of Elaine’s of Vilnius and annotations by Eve Jochnowitz.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 25 June 2015