When I first perused the unpublished manuscript for Fania Lewando’s 1938 cookbook Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbukh—before Schocken Books published the English edition titled The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook in 2015—I was struck by the beauty of its mouthwatering illustrations and the wide range of its vegetarian recipes. It was truly a piece of Jewish culinary history that must be told and shared.
A pioneer in the emerging Jewish vegetarian movement, Lewando was the owner of a kosher dairy restaurant on the border of the Jewish quarter in old Vilna (now Vilnius) in Lithuania. The restaurant was essentially a salon for the city’s artists and writers; her guestbook included comments and autographs from luminaries like Marc Chagall. She even headed a kosher vegetarian kitchen on crossings of the passenger ship MS Batory, shuttling between Gdynia (near Gdansk) and New York from 1937 until the outbreak of WWII.
With words that still ring true today, Lewando, on the eve of the bleakest period in Jewish history, created a new palate that celebrated nature’s bounty. Where meatless meals were once viewed as signs of hardship and sorrow, she found bright flavors and the key to health and well being. She updated traditional recipes and introduced new ones, which can be adapted today by home cooks looking for healthier alternatives.
I stayed close to the original recipe of this simply delicious Passover cheesecake (recipe here) with a matzo crust, as an homage to the past.
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