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OP: The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook

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by Fania Lewando
Schocken Books, 2015. Hardcover. Fine. First printing.


Operating a vegetarian restaurant—and one boasting celebrity clientele at that—in late-1930s Poland may seem an anachronism, but this was the reality for forward-thinking restaurateur Fania Lewando (1888–1941).

Citing the Jewish commandment of tsar baaley khayim (not causing the suffering of living creatures), the burgeoning field of dietetics, and the economic, environmental, and political advantages of minimizing meat consumption, Lewando understood a vegetarian diet to be an obvious and meaningful choice. 

Serving as both the kosher chef on a cruise line and as the owner of a restaurant located in the Jewish cultural center of Vilnius—a city volleyed between the shifting borders of Lithuania and Poland in the early 20th century—Lewando was well known and respected for her contributions to the culinary world. In 1938, she published, in Yiddish, a collection of her recipes.

Very few copies of the original book survive, but when one resurfaced at an antiquarian book fair in 1995, its significance was immediately recognized. It was translated by Eve Jochnowitz and published in English by Schocken Books in 2015. Maintaining the original aesthetic with vibrant and handsome illustrations of seed packets, the book did not remain in print long, despite a cult following. 

Pity that The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook has faded into obscurity once again, as its contribution to scholarship on vegetarianism’s broad and historic relevance across cultures, not to mention a source of delectable eatables, should not be understated.

The recipes, written in prose with varying levels of specificity, draw inspiration from many traditional Ashkenazi dishes (schnitzels, kugels, blintzes, latkes, cholents) as well as other inventive vegetable creations (celeriac cutlets, mushroom custard, spinach pate).

We are always pleased to get our hands on a copy of this uncommon treasure. Ours is a Fine first printing, without jacket as issued.

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