Sep 27, 2016
Just in time for the yom-toyvim, and all the cooking they entail, Editorial Board member Sarah Zarrow sat down with Eve Jochnowitz to discuss Jewish food, Yiddish cookbooks, and the paradox of juice. Jochnowitz is a Yiddish teacher and translator, an author of the In Mol Araan Yiddish/English food blog, and she recently translated Fania Lewando’s Vegetarish-dietetish kokhbukh into English as The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook.
Editor’s note: If you do purchase the book, and we hope you will, from an independent union shop, please note that there are some publisher’s errors in the translation. Jochnowitz has started an errata blog with corrections.
SZ: Thank you so much for joining me—and for inviting me over for tea and vegetarian snacks! I love this book, and I’m curious, how did you get the idea to translate Lewando? What made you think that this is something that the English-speaking world needs to see?
EJ: In this, as in so many other things, I have to thank Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who was my professor in the department of Performance Studies at NYU. It was in 1994, and I had just started my graduate work at NYU. We were both very interested in cookbooks and in the Yiddish language, and she pulled out a photocopy of the cookbook, and said “This is something you should be interested in,” and I took a look and said “Oh my God, yes!” There were a lot of things that excited me: it was written in Yiddish, it was a cookbook, it was vegetarian! These were all a very big deal. It was not the first Yiddish vegetarian cookbook I had found, or even the second, but it was the best; it’s written in the best Yiddish, and it has the best recipes.
The recipes were intriguing to me because they seemed to be so diverse … I’m trying not to use the word “catholic,” which is the word that is intruding on my consciousness right now, but there are recipes that you would expect from traditional East European Jewish cuisine. There are blintzes, there are kugels, there are kneydlekh, there are latkes. There are cholents. There are recipes from classic European cuisine. There is bigos, Polish hunter’s stew; there is ile flottante, the classic French dessert. There is a recipe that Lewando calls “fried toast,” or “fried croutons,” gepregelte gzhankes, which is French toast. In Yiddish it’s also frequently called “ufgefrishte broyt,” freshened-up bread. So traditional Jewish, traditional European. There are foods from the burgeoning health food movement, there are “vitamin salads,” there are vegetable juices, and they didn’t have juicers then, so the instructions for making carrot juice or beet juice are to grate the carrots or the beets and then to squeeeeeeze the grated carrots or beets until the precious precious juice comes out. So that would have taken a long time. There are recipes for pickles and preserves, there are recipes for wines and liquors. And then there are some recipes that are unlike anything I have seen anywhere else, that I think are simply from the mind of Fania Lewando. There is a recipe for rice kneydlekh stuffed with mushrooms, and this is such a wonderful recipe—you take fresh and dried mushrooms, you reconstitute them, you season them with salt, pepper, dill, parsley, and butter, you make a batter by cooking rice, adding eggs, breadcrumbs, yet more butter, you mold the rice into kneydlekh, you stuff them with the mushroom stuffing and close them up, you fry them in yet more butter, and then you put them in the baking pan, sprinkle them with some breadcrumbs, and just to be on the safe side, a little more butter, and then bake them in the oven. This recipe is so good, it’s labor-intensive, it’s butter-intensive, really what makes it amazing is not just the butter, it’s the work. A lot of the recipes in this book call for … well, people have asked me, “are there ingredients the book calls for that we can’t get a hold of these days,” and there are some ingredients that are a little hard to find these days, but really the ingredient that people can’t get ahold of is time. Time and patience are the ingredients needed to prepare a lot for the recipes from the old country.
SZ: That’s fascinating. What appealed to me was that it was a vegetarian cookbook. I don’t think—and I bet a lot of our readers also don’t think—of vegetarianism as a phenomenon popular in the interwar period, popular among Jews in the interwar period, in Eastern Europe. So I’m curious what it meant to be a vegetarian in the 1920s and in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
EJ: There is evidence that there really was a lot of interest among Yiddish-speaking Jews in vegetarianism in Eastern Europe, in the United States, and in Palestine. It was a very prolific movement, small in numbers but disproportionately influential culturally. There are a lot of reasons that I think I am safe to say that. First of all, just how much they published—I will talk about a couple of other vegetarian cookbooks in a moment. There were vegetarian restaurants—as opposed to dairy restaurants—restaurants that did not serve fish, which did serve Protose and Nutose, the sort of antecedents of tofu, nut-based protein things. One reason I can safely say they were disproportionately culturally relevant is the amount of ridicule and fury that the movement attracted.
There is a short story by Moshe Nadir with the title “Protose and Nutose,” in which the narrator’s friend tells him that his body is a graveyard, how can you eat corpses, and persuades him to go to a vegetarian restaurant. And at the restaurant, he is given a choice of Protose soup or Nutose soup, and then Protose steak and Nutose steak, and for dessert, Protose kompot or Nutose kompot, and since kompot is usually vegetarian anyway, that is very funny, and Protose tea or Nutose tea, and then we find out that the story is being narrated from a jail cell, because the narrator was obliged to murder the waiter, because he was so unhappy about the Protose and Nutose.
There is a cartoon by the great cartoonist Zuni Maud, “in a vegetarisher restauran,” in which a customer (and in Yiddish letters he’s “der kustomer”) and “der waiter” are having a conversation. The waiter says “I have a fish here that you won’t believe isn’t real fish” and the customer eats it and he says, “That’s right Mr. Waiter, this is such a good fish!” And in the end we see the kitchen, and it’s just a total slaughterhouse. The reason it tastes like real fish is that it is real fish, ha ha! Isn’t that a big joke on vegetarians; apparently this was hilarious ninety years ago.
SZ: Amazing.EJ: I encountered two other cookbooks. The first, I believe it was called Gezunt un shpayz, by Abraham Mishulow and Shifra Mishulow, published in New York in 1926. They wrote two books, the other is called Vegetarish kokh bukh “ratsionale narung” (Vegetarian Cookbook of “Rational Nourishment”).
SZ: What did it mean to be “rational” in those times?
EJ: Because food is the material that builds your body, it is rational to put the best food into your body. From the point of view of the vegetarians—and this was not the only food movement going on at that time, though it might be the only one that still exists, although in different form—but in the period between the wars, there really was this period of great upset. There was the enormous upheaval of the First World War and other events, and it was a time when people were looking at the future, and at the possibility that the future could be really different, and why not a whole lot better? I think that there is enthusiasm in the future and belief in the future, in a way that there had not been before and that there could not be afterwards, not after the second world war. It’s really this unique movement where the possibility of changing ourselves and the world is a very big deal and I’ll come back to the United States, because a lot of my research is in the United States. The New York World’s Fair of 1939 theme is “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and a lot of the exhibits at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 were about how food would make the world of tomorrow a better place, and you might not guess exactly what a utopian future of 1939 was as opposed to what it is now, because the problems and what they had to correct were so different. Now, everyone is back to the dirt and the organic and the manure and all that great stuff, but then, we couldn’t get far enough away from it. The future was a place where food would be reliable and clean and it’s easy to ridicule now, but people were dying from contaminated milk, people were getting very sick from unpasteurized foods, so cleanliness and purity are really what we are striving for. And science! “Will the chemist’s flask replace a thousand farms?” was the question asked at one exhibit. The answer was YES and this was good news. The Wonder Bread model factory at the World’s Fair showed every step from the harvesting of the wheat to the finished Wonder Bread, an eighteen-hour process. There was not a matzah bakery on the premises of the World’s Fair but the World’s Fair was in communication with Horowitz Brothers and Margaretten, to try to get a matzah bakery on the premises for the same reason, because matzah production is so concerned with purity, and squareness, and a certain type of cleanliness. So that was a connection that, unfortunately, or maybe not unfortunately, didn’t happen.
So, for the Mishulows, rationality is their point of view. And then there’s the Kokh-bukh far gezuntheyt (Cookbook for Health), by Lena Brown, 1930, also New York, and this book has in it a recipe for vegetarian gefilte fish.
SZ: What’s that like? Wait, did I have that at your house?
EJ: Do you want to guess what the main ingredient is? It’s salsify! Or as this book calls it, oysterplent. I have also made oyster chowder with salsify, and I have been told that it will absolutely fool you. So the argument that these books are making—there’s also an 1899 book calls loy sirtsakh, Thou Shalt Not Kill, that makes the argument for vegetarianism very clearly from the title that eating meat is about killing, and we don’t want to kill—these books are talking about how the vegetarian diet is the most rational, the most healthful, the way that we can evolve and become our more perfect selves. Hinde Amchanitzki’s Der origineler yidisher familyen kokh bukh (The Original Jewish Family Cookbook) came out in two editions, the first in 1905. The second includes a section on “vegetable un vegetarishe makholim,” which was not in the first edition. And then we have Fania Lewando’s book in Vilne in 1937. We know that a number of Yiddish writers—Meylekh Ravitch springs immediately to mind—had become vegetarian, mostly because of their concern about killing. Lewando pulls together several of these threads. The first sentence of her introduction is “it has long been established by the highest medical authorities that the vegetable diet is the best for the human organism.” So that’s the first paragraph. The second paragraph is “we also know from our Jewish tradition of tsar ba’aeli khayim that it is preferable not to cause harm to God’s creatures, and obviously vegetarianism is a logical way to fulfill this value.” And then thirdly she says “And practically, it has become nearly impossible to get kosher meat.” So everyone who had not thought of being a vegetarian for any other reason de facto needs to have some vegetarian recipes. So she’s unique—none of these other books talk about specifically religious Jewish values. They’re in Yiddish, they’re from a very Jewish point of view, but they’re mostly from communities that have turned away from traditional Jewish practice. And in fact, vegetarianism certainly was, and I believe in Europe and in Palestine as well, associated with leftist political movements, anarchism more than communism and socialism, though I’m not sure why. Lewando really is the only writer among these cookbook authors who specifically mentions a Jewish value for being vegetarian.
SZ: Do we know much more about her? About her Jewishness, her politics, or her family life?
EJ: We know very little. She and her husband Leyzer were childless. She had sisters, nieces and nephews in England, and she visited them around the time the book was published. She brought them many copies of the book, and that’s the source of many of the copies in England. We don’t know for sure, there are stories in the family that they may have been on a train deporting Jews to the Soviet Union, which maybe could have saved them, but of course when you’re getting deported, you try to escape, and they may have escaped. We just know that they did not survive the war.
SZ: Is there a sense of how popular this book was, or how popular any vegetarian cookbooks were? Some of your examples here look like manifestos. With the kosher slaughter ban, that becomes a practical necessity for people who don’t want to eat non-kosher meat, but beyond that: was it a growing movement? It’s hard to say of course since 1939 and 1941 cut off any sense of natural movement.
EJ: It’s very difficult to say. I believe that the vegetarian movement was growing. As for how the book was doing—if they even got to the point of selling a single copy, we have no way of knowing. We have some very positive reviews, though. We have an absolutely gorgeous review from [Zalmen] Reyzen in Unzer tog, in which he specifically says “this book is to be recommended because of the language, the vocabulary from many different regions of Yiddish, reflecting the dishes’ different regions,” and that he always hoped that YIVO would publish a cookbook, and that “though YIVO hasn’t published a cookbook, Vilne has,” and in a wonderful aside, he said “It goes without saying that this book could never have been published in Warsaw!”
SZ: That’s fantastic!
EJ: And then, in the guestbook, there is a wonderful quotation from the guestbook that was mistakenly not published in the English translation, in which three great activists and writers from Warsaw, Nathan Buxbaum, Shloyme Mendelson, and Khayim Shloyme Kazdan say, “Truly clean, fine, and delicious. If only we could say the same thing about the rest of Vilne. Do us a favor—come to Warsaw and we will be frequent guests!”
SZ: I’m curious as well about how in your estimation, being not only a translator but also an expert on food and also a fantastic cook, how ideas of “Jewish food” have changed since Lewando’s time, maybe circled back in some ways … can you comment on that? Or is her food even a Jewish cookbook? Is it merely local, available ingredients?
EJ: Well, as to whether ingredients were even available—this isn’t your question but I’ll come back to it—we know from memoirs and literature from this region, that people did not have that amount of butter to play around with, uncountable eggs, or even fresh fruits and vegetables. Lewando may have been in a unique position where she could have gotten the eggs and dairy she needed for the restaurant, she could have been theoretically writing a book for “if you have all this amazing stuff, here’s what you can do with it,” and she may have been writing for an aristocracy that was so exclusive that it only consisted of herself. It’s not just the money, but also the time and devotion. And the ability to make some very fiddly things.
Is the food Jewish? The food is absolutely Jewish. Is it kosher? A bunch of the dessert recipes call for gelatin, and she does not anywhere specify to use kosher gelatin or to use agar or use isinglass. Maybe it’s assumed that you use kosher gelatin or agar or isinglass, or maybe gelatin was just not even considered to be…there’s a point of view that gelatin might not be unkosher because it is so denatured that it is no longer related to the product it came from. That works for kashrus, but not for vegetarians. Bוt maybe her vegetarianism was so informed by her Judaism, that she thought, okay, if this works for kashrus, it works for vegetarianism. There is a short chapter on Passover foods, and many other recipes throughout the book that are suitable for Passover without being specially noted as Passover foods. Of course some foods that we consider to be Eastern European Jewish—blintzes, pierogn, latkes—but some foods really are Jewish—kugel, kneydlekh, cholent—certainly these are really Jewish foods. And there are no helpful little chatty notes preceding the recipes saying “this is good for Shvues,” or “this is good for Khanike,” or “this is good for a weeknight when you’re really busy” or anything like that. Except for a very brief introduction, she lets the recipes speak for themselves. Sometimes it’s very confusing to try to figure out what the recipes are trying to say. And her arrangement is also puzzling. There are three chapters, one called “kuglen,” one called “pudingen,” and tegekhtser, another synonym. The recipes in the three are pretty much interchangeable; I think that they must have been sorted by provenance, not by content. And then there’s a very long chapter called “miscellaneous recipes,” that has just that.
SZ: Before I get into thinking about the translation, I want to circle back to what you said about juices. I’m noticing, of course, the proliferation, in this very neighborhood, of juices I cannot afford. I’m curious—thinking that this is a “dietetic cookbook,” and thinking about what we know about juice, that it’s divested of its fiber, and that it’s expensive—I’m just so puzzled. Can you comment on this? It seems that juice is an unaffordable luxury these days.
EJ: It was an unaffordable luxury if you had to squeeze your carrot through a cheesecloth, too! So that’s something that hasn’t changed. I think juice by its nature is natural, it’s from a natural source, but…I’m not going to say it’s unnatural, but it’s not the natural thing to do with a carrot. It’s certainly processed. We have people even to this very day very divided on the issue of juice. It’s either the most healthy, most healing, most curative, most wonderful thing you can do to drink all these juices, you could never get all those vitamins unless you sat down and ate forty pounds of carrots. You’d have to quit your job and eat carrots all day. And then we have the other side saying that you’re losing the fiber, and the process of chewing is a healthy thing that is good for our bodies, and there are all kinds of reasons that you should eat the whole carrot. I went to the Natural Gourmet cooking school in the 1990s, and the head of the school was Anne Marie Colbin, of blessed memory, and she was on the anti-juice side of the line. She said that if you drink carrot juice, then your body will start craving the rest of the carrot, and the whole rest of the day you’ll be looking for the rest of the carrot, craving that crunchiness, and you’ll end up eating potato chips and crunchy things that are bad for you, all because you went and drank that carrot! I’m remembering this because I mentioned this to a chef I was working with, and we had these swinging saloon doors, and one day she strode through these doors and yelled, “Where’s the rest of my carrot?!”
SZ: Carrot as gateway drug. I love it.
EJ: I think the idea in the popular imagination, both the Jewish and non-Jewish, has changed very much since Poland in the 1930s. The impression I get—and this is anecdotal and not statistically significant—is that in pre-war Poland, Jewish food, and particularly Jewish restaurant food, was the best, or among the best, restaurant food, and people loved to go to Jewish restaurants, because they were so good. In 21st century New York, you will mention Jewish food and the first thing people say is not “yes, it’s the best food, yes, let’s go eat some Jewish food;” it’s something else. I don’t even know if I want to quote some of the things people have said to me when I say I work on Jewish food. “Isn’t it terrible, isn’t it horrible, flavorless, starchy … ” It is the perception that Jewish restaurants, or at least kosher restaurants, for any number of reasons, none of them having to do with the laws of kashrus themselves, are out of step with really good food, although there are certainly exceptions.
SZ: I wonder sometimes if the disparaging of Ashkenazi cuisine in particular has to do with the disparaging of Eastern Europe in general. I go to Poland a lot, I eat wonderful fresh vegetables, but my extended family, and my friends, think I only eat boiled potatoes. I wonder if there’s a link there as well.
EJ: Definitely the prejudices of the Western world against Eastern Europe are many, and they are not necessarily related to Jewishness, but they are not unrelated. Eastern Europe is poorer, plainer, somehow in black and white in this view. These are ideas that are shared, if not consciously, across Western cultures, and certainly among Jews.
There’s also an important point about kosherness. Kosherness was considered something better, purer, and maybe even mystically good. There was an article in Midrasz magazine in 1995 called “Polska Koszerna,” which was just full of articles about kosher vodka, matzah, all these different kosher things you could get in Poland, either with certification or “kosher style,” because it was considered something desireable.
SZ: I want to turn to translation, and to the book itself. Let me ask about genre first. How popular were cookbooks in Yiddish, and were there differences between a cookbook published in Yiddish in Europe or in the U.S. during the same time period?
EJ: Jews lagged behind the generation population with regard to cookbooks, and Yiddish lags behind general Jewish publishing in other languages. So Yiddish cookbooks are a very recent and very small genre, of Jewish cookbooks in general and of cookbooks as world literature. Sometimes we can know how much a book sold, but that’s not the case for Lewando. We also can’t know how many people who owned the book used it for cooking, unless something turns up in literature. When I was speaking to Malky Eisenberger, who wrote Makholim tsum gezunt (Health Dishes) in the Klausenberger community here in Brooklyn, she mentioned that the big cookbook that’s most heavily in use in Hasidic communities is the Nitra Cookbook, called The Heimishe Kitchen. There were many editions, and it was really the book that a lot of the different Hasidic communities turned to, until it was eclipsed by Kosher by Design, which is like the Monsanto of Jewish cookbooks. She said, you know, people will talk when they’re stopping in the store, did you make this, I used this recipe, and it was in the conversation. We could really know things with that book that we can’t always know about cookbooks.
SZ: So thinking about the process of translation—I’m curious whether you think that being a cook yourself was necessary, or at least very helpful, for the translation, or whether the subject knowledge was less important and it was really all about the Yiddish knowledge.
EJ: I think the subject area knowledge was very important. Just in the twenty-two years that I’ve known about the book, there have been some attempts to translate it. No one has really been able to do it, because there wasn’t anyone who could bring together the culinary and language expertise. And this can be a problem. For example, in 1989, there was a translation published of a book by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, called The Futurist Cookbook. This was a cookbook written in the 1920s in Italy, about food and the future. So it’s not unrelated to Yiddish vegetarianism at all. The Futurists also believed that the role of food had to be completely different, but their approach to how it had be completely different was very, very different from how Yiddish-speaking vegetarians thought that food had to be completely different. They thought that food should incorporate ideas from art and philosophy, that food should incorporate randomness, that you should make a meal where you would make letters out of meat, cheese, and pastry, and then the guests would choose what they ate based on their initials. This random element would govern what you were tasting. You would eat food blindfolded. Perfume would be involved. All these very interesting ideas about food.
Futurism, particular Italian Futurism, has a bad reputation, because it was associated with the enthusiasm for fascism in early twentieth-century Italy, and Marinetti himself indeed believed that fascism was part of what would be great about the future, which would be scientific and pure and clean and all these things that futurist food would be. The reason I bring up the Futurist Cookbook is that there is a recipe in it for distressed roses. You take the roses and you smash them face down into a frying pan and fry them in the method of Jewish artichokes. I say that because there is a very well-known Roman dish called carciofi alla guidia, artichokes in the Jewish style, which is a Jewish dish, in which you take baby artichokes, you hold them by the stem, you spread open the petals, and you mash them face down into the frying pan and you fry them so that the petals splay out. And this recipe for roses is obviously saying that you should cook roses in the manner of Jewish artichokes. And this is an example also of a Jewish dish that crossed over into the general population. It became a beloved art of Italian cooking and you will find recipes for Jewish artichokes in non-Jewish italian cookbooks. But the translator was apparently unfamiliar with the dish of Jewish artichokes, and wrote that you should smash the roses face-down in the frying pan in the manner of Jerusalem artichokes. The translator must have thought “There’s a food called Jerusalem artichokes, and Jerusalem is sort of Jewish, so that must be what the author was talking about.” Of course, it couldn’t possibly be what the author was talking about, first of all, because the Italian word for Jerusalem artichoke, topinambur, doesn’t have Jerusalem in it, and because a Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber, a corm I think, a root vegetable that cannot be cooked the way a flower can be cooked. So I think that is a particularly salient example of how a translator of a cookbook has to be familiar with a lot of details about cuisine in order to be able to translate the cookbook. I apologize for picking on this one particular translator; I’m sure there are countless examples. A recent translation of a Yiddish cookbook translated “englishe fefer” (allspice) as “English pepper.” When do you know enough? Maybe someone could know a lot about Italian cuisine and not know about Jewish Italian cuisine. Maybe someone could be working on Jewish Eastern European cuisine their whole lives and still miss a lot of really important things in this book. When can you say, “Okay, I’m an expert, bring it on”? I don’t know when, but I know that if you don’t start translating now, you will miss some opportunities. And the people who can help now, biz 120, will not always be able to help.
SZ: You say that people have to be really rich in time in order to use the recipes. I’m curious, for New Yorkers, for other people who are less rich in time: how do you think the translation will be used?
EJ: I think that there are recipes that can be made relatively easily: the salads, the soups. Well, even the soups take a few more steps than soups we normally make.
SZ: I want to try the coffee with yolks.
EJ: The coffee with yolks! Easy and delicious. Shall we have some right now? I have eggs! Let’s get you some coffee.
SZ: I’ve been meaning to try this a long time. You have to really like eggs for it.
EJ: The recipe calls for “two spoons” of sugar, and I translated that as tablespoons. Brown sugar is very nice here.
SZ: Yeah, this is another question: obviously there’s the difference between metric and English, but are there other practical difficulties?
EJ: I wanted to keep weights, because I think that’s so much better and so much more reliable.
SZ: And rational!
EJ: And rational. But a lot of people don’t have scales in their kitchens, and they do have cups. The publisher wanted it to be more accessible, so in addition to translating everything from metric to English, it had to be weights to volume. Even the recipes I didn’t test, I had to measure all the ingredients. Ten decas [decagrams] of rice is ⅓ cup, ten decas of sugar is something else, and ten decas of flour is something else, so I had to weigh out the ingredients and then measure what I got in order to make the amounts correct for what Lewando wanted.
SZ: This 1 1 SZ is now enjoying coffee with yolks. strikes me as something my grandmother would be interested in making … Wow … this is fantastic. What a genius idea. Do you have the sense that this would have been popular, maybe in a fleyshik restaurant?
EJ: I don’t recall having come across anything like this!
SZ: It’s Fania’s own.
EJ: As far as I know. One thing I’ve learned since the book was published was that at the same time the Yiddish book was published, a Polish version was published. As far as I know, only one copy exists; it belongs to a gentleman in Chicago. Maybe she even wrote the Polish version first, and it’s the original version.
SZ: So I’m curious to know what your next translation adventure is, bli neyder.
EJ: My next translation adventure is a book written in the United States in 1958 by Mordecai Kosover. The title is Yidishe makholim, which literally means “Jewish foods.” But it’s not about all Jewish foods; it’s about foods upon which one makes the brokhe “mezonos.” Jewish foods that are made from flour, but are not bread.
SZ: So not challah.
EJ: He does mention koyletsh, which is a type of challah, and bagels belong to this category too. It’s a very Jewish way of thinking about food. Even if you’re describing the book and you say, “it’s a book about mezonos,” then you have to describe what mezonos are. And that food is divided in the Jewish mind not by where it comes from or what you do with it but by what blessing you make over it, is so interesting. His primary sources are rabbinical responsa in which these lexical items turn up. As it happens, this category of mezonos does contain many of the Jewish foods that people are most interested in and curious about: blintzes, bagels, pierogn, kugels, lokshn, things like that. He finds the earliest known citations for these foods; it’s the O.E.D. of Jewish food. This is a book with information that a lot of people are dying to know. Or at least people I run into are dying to know.