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December 29, 2015 by

Long Before Moosewood, There Was…


Long before there was the Moosewood Cookbook and the explosion of interest in vegetarian cooking and eating, there was Fania Lewando, pioneering cook, thinker and educator. Born in Poland in 1889, Fania was the second of Haim and Esther Fiszliewicz’s six children—five of whom were girls. Her family immigrated to England in 1901 and changed their name to Fisher.  As a young woman, Fania married an egg merchant, and together they moved to Vilna, where she opened a kosher dairy restaurant on the border of the Jewish quarter in old Vilnius. She also ran a cooking school nearby, and presided over a salon whose guests included Marc Chagall, and Yiddish poet and playwright Itzik Manger. She even supervised a kosher vegetarian kitchen on the MS Batory, an ocean liner that sailed between Gdynia, Poland, and New York City. 


Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively from Vegetables was written in Yiddish and published in 1938.  But coming as it did on the cusp of the blood-drenched tide that swept across Europe, the book, like its author and her husband, soon perished. Or so it had seemed, until many decades later, when a copy miraculously resurfaced and landed at YIVO.  The cookbook was quickly recognized as the lost treasure that it was, and it was soon translated and slightly adapted to suit contemporary cooks. 

The resulting volume, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (Schocken 2015), has an earnest and at times touching tone. “The produce must be of the best quality,” instructs the author. “There is only a small difference in price between the best and worst produce, but in cooking there is a great difference, in taste as well as nutrition.” The four hundred recipes contained represent a dazzling array of Jewish cuisine and tradition—minus the meat. Cutlets made of beans or nuts, stewed dishes, soups, kugels, blintzes, latkes, Passover dishes, stuffed dishes, breads, compotes, turnovers and juices—they’re all here, testament to Fania’s wide-ranging vision and deep devotion. Below is Fania’s eggplant appetizer; make it tonight, in her honor. 

Broil 2 large purple eggplants, and remove the charred skins. Sauté 2 (chopped) onions and 3 tomatoes in (olive) oil. Grind the sautéed vegetables with a bit of challah that has been soaked in vinegar. Add this to the broiled eggplant pulp and chop well. Then mix with salt, (chopped fresh) dill, and ½ cup of the best oil. Serve decorated with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill.