Meet the Vegetarian Goddess of Pre-War Vilna

Top: Fania Lewando in her restaurant (center, between two waitresses in white). Bottom: The cover of her recently translated cookbook, published by Schocken Press (2015). 


What Marc Chagall thought of his vegetarian meal in Vilna is not something he noted in the guest book of Fania Lewando's restaurant. Perhaps his signature was enough to signify the importance of Fania's culinary contribution to the intellectual and artistic Yiddish circles of pre-war Lithuania. Other prominent names haunt the guest book -- those of poets, writers, playwrights, journalists, painters, politicians -- although none so well known today as Chagall's.  The once thriving Yiddish high culture of Eastern Europe as recorded here would be wiped out just a few years after Lewando published her vegetarian Yiddish cookbook in 1938. As would Lewando herself.

Before the war, Fania was well known as an early crusader for vegetarianism. Born to a fishmonger and his wife in Poland, in 1887, Fania would grow up to be a leading advocate of the health and spiritual benefits of eliminating meat from one's diet. According to the book's forward by Joan Nathan, Lewando "broke from the long-standing Eastern European tradition of associating meat-based meals with the Sabbath, holidays, weddings and other celebratory events, and vegetarian dishes with times of scarcity, with mourning, and with ordinary weekday meals."

It's easy to imagine that between the wars, serving guests or one's family a meal of cauliflower may have seemed impoverished and even humiliating.  There was no culture then of gourmet vegetarian cuisine as there is today. The offer of an all vegetable main course would likely be anticipated as a plate of boiled turnip. This attitude was precisely one that drove Fania crazy. In her book's introduction, entitled, "To the Housewife: A Few Words and Practical Advice," she opens with an admonishment to the reader: "It has long been established by the highest medical authorities that food made from fruits and vegetables if far healthier and more suitable for the human organism than food made from meat..." And she includes an article to that effect written by a Dr. Dembski, originally for the Yiddish periodical, "Folksgezunt." (God Bless You!) So confident was she on this point that Fania once even traveled to England to try and interest the Heinz company in her recipes. 

Highest medical authorities and human organisms aside, even vegetarians find it creatively challenging to come up with satisfying, filling meals on a daily basis. Fania wrote her book not least to meet that challenge and prove otherwise -- as she demonstrated every day in her restaurant, and as she does in the 400 recipes she collected and published. These recipes too might have perished in the Holocaust if one of the few remaining copies of her book had not found its way into the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. There it languished until two women -- Barbara Manzur and Wendy Waxman -- found it and understood its importance. They had the book translated from the original Yiddish 
by Eve Jochnowitz, who also tested and modernized the recipes. Joan Nathan introduced the manuscript to the publisher. Now Fania's resonant and authorative voice can be heard again, hearkening us back to the tables of pre-war Vilna, where her ingenuity with the simplest vegetables left diners full and happy. "It was a--a--a mekhaye," wrote the famous poet (and aptly surnamed) Itzik Manger in her guest book. ("Mekhaye" translates to "a life-giving delight.")

While there are many recipes for soups and rice/kasha dishes, including those made from fruit, I was intrigued by a section titled simply "Cutlets." My family are unabashedly meat eaters;  more and more lately, however, we are trying to eat meatless meals -- which is hard to do if you are also trying to avoid big dollops of carbs, like pasta. I skimmed through these -- "Chickpea Cutlets," "Bean Cutlets" and even "Nut Cutlets" -- until my eyes rested on a recipe for "Cauliflower Cutlets." When I was last in Israel, there was a vogue for whole roasted heads of cauliflower. Maybe this would be similar.

The main gist of Fania's cutlet recipes, as I quickly discerned, amounted to this: take a cooked vegetable, whiz it in a food processor, add eggs and bread crumbs and fry, nella scuola di
 vegetable latkes. Hard to go wrong with that. 

So earlier this week, I announced to my family that we were going to have a vegetarian meal a la Vilna. I bought a head of cauliflower, per the recipe. ("One head of cauliflower to feed, like, four people? Seriously?!") Secretly I had a meat back-up, ready to go, assuming contra Fania that the cauliflower so-called cutlet would mostly amount to a side. 

Like all of the recipes in the book, even with Eve Jochnowitz's updates, there's a charming -- or scary -- old-fashioned vagueness to the instructions. "Cook a cut-up large head of cauliflower in salted water and push through a food mill or puree in a food processor." Cook for how long? In how much water? And puree to what consistency? You're just going to have to wing it. And so I did -- including adding grated fontina cheese to the mixture, and garnishing with chopped fresh parsley and lemon slices, none of which Fania specified. The result, truly, was astonishing. 
Served with a side salad, the "cutlets" -- which I renamed "schnitzel" -- made for more than a filling supper. Moreover you could eat two or even three guiltlessly, unlike say a veal or chicken schnitzel.  I quietly put away my meat back-up meal in the refrigerator. Fania won her point -- and also emboldened me to explore this style of eating further.

So what in the end happened to Fania? Virtually all of her family (her parents and five siblings) immigrated to England in 1901, while Fania, for reasons unknown, remained in Poland. There she would meet and marry an egg merchant named Lazar Lewando, with whom she would later open her restaurant in Vilna. When Lithuania fell under Soviet Communist rule in June of 1940, the Lewandos -- like other "capitalists" -- would have been treated with high suspicion, in addition to enduring the already rampant anti-Semitism overtaking the region. The Lewandos had earlier been refused a visa to the US because of a leg wound her husband suffered while fighting during the Russian invasion of Poland in 1920. Fania visited her family in England shortly before the war broke out, but returned to Vilna. The book notes:

"The Nazis ... entered Vilna on June 24 [1941], followed by the Einsatzgruppen killing squads; as many as sevnty thousand Jews were murdered in the nearby Ponary forest over the following months. On September 6-7, Vilna's Jews were confined in a ghetto. Although we do not have exact dates, we know from witnesses' accounts that Fania and Lazar were captured by Soviet soldiers while trying to flee the Nazis; they presumably perished sometime thereafter, as all trace of them was then lost."

Except now for this wonderful book, a mekhaye indeed.

The recipe for Fania's "Cauliflower Schnitzel" can be found here, on Fig Tree & Vine's seasonal Shabbat & Holiday recipe page.

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