Veggie Tales, Vilna style

Saved by the Max recreates the diner hangout featured in the early 1990s teen sitcom ‘Saved by the Bell.’ The pop-up diner, currently in Chicago, will go on a ‘national tour’ next year.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Veggie Tales, Vilna style

If you think the “farm-to-table” movement is a fairly recent trend, think again.

The Alice Waters of Vilna, Lithuania, a woman by the name of Fania Lewando, was serving farm-to-table vegetarian food in the 1930s to Yiddish speaking hipsters at her vegetarian restaurant. In 1938, she published a Yiddish vegetarian cookbook “unlike any that had come before.” According to the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the cookbook’s 400 recipes “ranged from traditional Jewish dishes (kugel, blintzes, fruit compote, borscht) to vegetarian versions of Jewish holiday staples (cholent, kishke, schnitzel) to appetizers, soups, main courses, and desserts that introduced vegetables and fruits that had not traditionally been part of the repertoire of the Jewish homemaker (chickpea cutlets, Jerusalem artichoke soup; leek frittata; apple Charlotte with whole wheat breadcrumbs).” Also included were impassioned essays by Lewando and a physician about the health benefits of vegetarianism. Accompanying the recipes were lush full-color drawings of vegetables and fruit that had originally appeared on bilingual (Yiddish and English) seed packets. Lewando’s cookbook was sold throughout Europe.

Lewando and her husband died during World War II, and it was assumed that all but a few family-owned and archival copies of her cookbook were lost forever. But then a couple attending an antiquarian book fair in England in 1995 came upon a copy of Lewando’s cookbook. Recognizing its historical value, they purchased it and donated it to the YIVO Institute, the premier repository for books and artifacts relating to pre-war European Jewry. 

Enter two Jewish women from Great Neck, N.Y., who came upon the rare book while at a class at YIVO in 2009. Wendy Waxman and Barbara Mazur couldn’t read a lick of Yiddish but they were attracted to the book’s colorful cover illustrations and the history of its visionary author who had championed vegetarianism during an era when eating meat was cause for celebration. Waxman and Mazur began a campaign to get the book translated and re-published in English, and eventually enlisted food writer Joan Nathan in their efforts. In June 2015, “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook” by Fania Lewando was published and has since become a bestseller worldwide.

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Next month, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis is sponsoring a local event that will feature cooking demonstrations and a discussion of 1930s Vilna culture and music as a way to recreate the feeling of Jewish life during that era. Margi Lenga Kahn, food writer for the Jewish Light, will be the presenter.

The “Farm to Table Vilna Experience” will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Crown Center Café, 8350 Delcrest Drive.  Seating is limited. RSVP to Andrew Goldfeder at [email protected] or 314-442-3711. Dietary laws will be observed.

Listen up, preppies!

Speaking of food, should you find yourself in Chicago sometime between now and “next semester,” consider dining at Saved by the Max, a pop-up restaurant that pays tribute to the ’90s high school sitcom, “Saved by the Bell.” But be sure to make a reservation, if you are even able to get one. Since opening in June, this wildly popular re-creation of the Bayside High gang’s favorite hangout, the Max Diner, has been sold-out, though reservations from Jan. 1 through May will be available starting at 11 a.m. Thursday (Dec. 22) at savedbythemax.ticktocktix.com.

The Chicago pop-up, located in Wicker Park, is officially partners with NBC Universal Brand Development Group but was created by Derek Berry and his partners, Steve Harris and Zack Eastman, 32, who graduated from Clayton High School in 2003 (his parents are Cynthia Garnholz and Bill Eastman). 

“The three of us have worked together as a trio for eight years,” Zack explained. “One of our projects was a monthly ‘90s-theme party that Derek and I have been doing for six years. We were talking one day about taking it to the next level. Then Derek calls me and says he has this crazy idea for a ‘Saved By the Bell’-themed restaurant.

“All I can say is that the stars aligned,” Zack continued. “Steve had a space where another restaurant had been operating but vacated, then NBC signed on and helped us with the finer details of the re-creation. We had the Max diner built in six weeks.”

Actor Ed Alonzo reprised his role as Max, the namesake proprietor of The Max, in a video to announce the pop-up’s location. Eastman said originally it was only going to be open for the month of June, but “the demand was so high, we kept extending it. . . Eventually, we decided it would be unfair not to give Chicago a full year” so a decision was made to keep it open until June 2017.

Serving dinner only, menu items include Mac & Screech,  Kelly Kapowski (Monte Cristo sandwich) and Lisa Turtle Milkshakes. Unlike the TV version of the Max, the pop-up features a full bar with Bayside-inspired cocktails.

Eastman, who is also a talent buyer, music promoter and co-owner of a Chicago bar called the East Room, said he cut his teeth in the restaurant business working at Bar Italia in the Central West End.  “They were like family to me,” he said. “They showed me a lot of love when I was younger and I learned a lot about restaurants when I worked there.”

Last week, Dennis Haskins, aka Principal Belding, announced on video that not only would the pop-up be extending its Chicago stay, but it will also embark on a “national tour” once the Chicago location closes in May. Dates and locations have yet to be released, though Eastman says the savedbythemax.com website has been fielding hundreds of requests from fans to come to their city.

When I asked Zack if St. Louis was a possibility, he said he hoped so, though he added that a lot depends on finding the right space and other logistics.  

Still looking for last minute Hanukkah gifts? 

Here are a few for:

• Poetry lovers. Central Reform Congregation has published “Poetry of Prayer: Thirty Years of Awe,” which features poems selected from the submissions by CRC members over the last 30 years. To order your copy for $25, contact Tristan Jones at [email protected]

• Yoga Lovers. “Yiddische Yoga: OYsanas for Every Generation” (Ben Yehuda Press, $12.95), by retired Jewish educator Rhonda Rosenheck, pokes affectionate fun at how Jews have become increasingly drawn toward Buddhism and yoga over the past 50 years. “Jew-Bu” is how Yoga-practicing, Buddhism-inspired Jews identify themselves. Rosenheck says that the book’s one-panel cartoons are similar in spirit to New Yorker cartoons in that readers can grasp the joke, gag or humorous commentary at once. The book is available at amazon.com or yiddischeyoga.com.

• Tech lovers who have no idea what gift to get. It’s called Gidi, and it’s a gift-finding chatbot through Facebook messenger that uses emerging technologies (natural language processing and machine learning) to have a conversation with users about gifts that might be appropriate for someone. Then it makes suggestions. Think of it as your own electronic personal shopper. Visit https://www.gidi.ai to get started or log into your Facebook Messenger app and search for @getgidi.

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