Vilna Vegetarianism, 1938

Turns out that vegetarian cooking - and eating - is nothing new to Jews.

In 1938, Fania Lewando, the owner of a famous restaurant in Vilna, published her recipes in a Yiddish vegetarian cookbook, Vegetarish-dietisher kokhbukh, 400 shpayzn gemakht oysshislekh fun grinsn (Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Meals Made Exclusively from Vegetables). Lewando’s Restaurant, at 14 Niemiecka Street, was a place to bring visiting dignitaries, as well as a favorite of Jewish artists and writers at the forefront of Poland’s avant-garde. Her restaurant, cookbook, and thoughts about nutrition reflected the new secular and modern Jewish culture built on the old. A fragile and humble artifact from a thriving Jewish city at its height (which was also the brink of its destruction), a rare copy of Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook is now housed in the YIVO collection in New York. It tells us about Vilna’s role in the intellectual trends of the time, but it also memorializes Vilna’s humble, daily life, where the idiom of the kitchen — “Small potatoes,” “It would blacken my face like a burnt kasha,” “Sticking their heads in other people’s pots” — added expressiveness to the modern Yiddish literary arts.

Although she was a restaurateur, Lewando based her recipes on kitchen literacy that every home cook would have had. Her introduction gives advice on the importance of women learning to cook and explains the philosophy of vegetarianism, the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and the functions of vitamins (including protection against scurvy and rickets). At the same time, her recipes assume skills and familiarity with market produce — Antonowka apples and “your finest bee’s honey,” and basic use of kitchen equipment — grinders, flasks, and clay pots. There is a dedicated Passover section, one on confections, on preserves and on pickles, as we would expect. There are no strident politics or tracts, unlike other cookbooks of the time coming from countries that were part of the International Vegetarian Union, which began in Dresden in 1908.

The bulk of Lewando’s meals sound familiar today, instantly identifiable with Ashkenazi cuisine: noodle and potato kugels, carrot tzimmes, bean cholent with eggs cooked inside, klopps [a kind of meatloaf ] and sweet or savory-filled pierogi. Yes, there are entries that use chocolate, lemons and dried figs — luxuries then — but also thrifty recipes that acknowledge the poverty and strain of 1938 Vilna: fermenting stale browned rolls backwards into beer-like cider; candying precious delicacies such as orange rinds; turning easy-to-grow radishes into jam.

Dairy products enrich many dishes, and we see that vegetarianism is a solution not only to health but also to keeping kosher. As Alter Kacyzne — Yiddish songwriter, photographer, editor, playwright, and screenwriter — wrote in the restaurant’s guestbook: “An appeal to all Semites and Aryans from a person who’s been a vegetarian for thirty years. Gentlemen, you should know, a lunch at Lewando’s is the best propaganda for the dairy idea.”

A publicity brochure from 1938 mentions that Lewando lectured on the S.S. Batory “which runs between the port of Gdynia and the U.S., and she installed a vegetarian kitchen on the ship….” But we don’t know how much science or training she might have had. The prominence of the publisher of her of her book, G. Kleckina, her pleasing portrait and the impressive guest list which included Marc Chagall and Itzik Manger suggest her important position in Vilna and the hospitable center of the arts that her restaurant was.

Lewando’s cookbook demonstrates how Vilna was linked to the enlarging world. Appended testimonials show that actors, painters and doctors from New York, Bucharest and Warsaw all sought out this restaurant for mock kishka filled with bread crumbs and mushrooms; mock caviar and “veal” cutlets made of legumes, grains and nuts; and seasonal “health” juices. Even the beautiful illustrations of vegetables that decorate the opening pages of the book, captioned in English and Hebrew and perhaps modeled on pictures from seed packets sold in Europe and Palestine at the time, signal international networks and awareness, and perhaps encourage the independence of growing one’s own food.

Food writer Judith Hausman is the co-author of Over the Rainbeau: Living the Dream of Sustainable Farming. Frances Brent is the author of The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.