A cookbook published in 1938 in Yiddish doesn’t sound like a slam dunk to be a bestseller in 2015, and yet that’s precisely what happened with The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen by Fania Lewando, translated by Eve Jochnowitz (Schocken). The book, released on May 26, debuted at #8 on PW's cookbook bestseller list.
With only about 1,000 copies printed and sold throughout Europe before WWII broke out, the cookbook would have been lost to history if it had not been for two women, Wendy Waxman and Barbara Mazur, who found a copy of the long out-of-print book in the rare book room at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. The women found a champion of the book in Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan who, in turn, brought the book to the attention of Schocken editorial director Altie Karper.
Bringing new life to a long-forgotten gem is one challenge, but promoting a book in which the author is deceased (Lewando died in 1941 while fleeing from the Nazis), and therefore doesn’t have a current platform, is even trickier. In order to do the book and its history justice, Schocken went back to the cookbook's roots, which are surprisingly current. “With all of Fania Lewando’s excellent advice about using the freshest, best quality fruit and vegetables you can get, and about using every part of the fruit or vegetable, and about not discarding even the cooking water, it seemed as though the book was written last week, and not 70 years ago,” said Karper. “I was particularly intrigued by the vegetable juice and fruit juice recipes. How much more 21st century can you get?”
To launch the book, Schocken staged recreation of the restaurant Lewando ran in Lithuania at the YIVO Institute on June 2. They hired a Klezmer band and Gefilteria, a kosher catering company, to replicate recipes from the book for the event, including Cold Blueberry Soup and Rye Honey Cake with Candied Orange Peel. The event’s décor, with white tablecloths, simple flowers, and candles on each table, was modeled after photos from Lewando’s restaurant. Also from her restaurant is a guestbook she kept, in which visitors wrote about their experiences. The original ledger was printed in the back of the cookbook and for the release party; that night’s guestbook was given to Lewando’s great-nephew Howard Skolnick, who attended the event.
Publicist Jordan Rodman admitted that promoting a book without a living author was initially a bit challenging. “When media reached out wanting to interview someone about the book, they were a bit confused as to who they could interview, but Barbara and Wendy are so passionate about this project and have done all the interviews and really channeled Fania,” and added, “Lewando was a revolutionary woman who owned a cooking school, a restaurant, created and publicized a cookbook, and spoke out about the benefits of the vegetarian movement. That would even be revolutionary in this day and age, and Fania did it as a woman in the 1930’s.”
Waxman and Mazur both found it deeply satisfying to have the long-lost cookbook they helped bring to life find its way onto the bestsellers list. “It’s like finding a hidden gem and shining it to its original splendor,” Waxman said. Mazur added that, “Helping to uncover a piece of little-known Jewish history is absolutely thrilling. It is also redemptive: Fania’s enemies may have cut her life short, but they could not defeat her spirit, her creativity and her life’s work.”
The two will continue to publicize the book as they tour Jewish Community Centers around the country starting in the fall. While Waxman and Mazur are the reason why the book is back in print, Rodman noted, “They are receiving nothing in return. They just stumbled upon this amazing cookbook and the story behind it, and knew they had to share it.”