Book Review: Leo Tolstoy: A Vegetarian’s Tale

Reviewer’s Note: Review copy of the book discussed here was provided to me at no cost in exchange for my honest opinion.

Of all the things I knew about classic Russian author Leo Tolstoy (admittedly not a lot beyond those of his novels that I was charged with reading in high school), his conversion to vegetarianism at age 50 was not among them. Were it not for the copy of Leo Tolstoy: A Vegetarian’s Tale by S. Pavlenko that I read for this review, the fact might have forever eluded me.

This recipe book was born of a trove of family recipes kept in the diary of Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Andreevna Tolstoy. Sophia’s brother published a single copy of her collected efforts in 1874 as a gift for her. Of the 162 recipes that she created, Pavlenko’s book reproduces 30 in both original format and modern, the latter updating measurement amounts, expanding and clarifying directions, and offering ingredient substitutions where warranted.

Interspersed amidst the recipes are fascinating vignettes of life as it centered around the author’s family dinners: the reader is afforded a seat at the table for, among other things, the many instances of entertaining guests with lavish meals, and an insight into the family matriarch’s hands-on involvement with household meal-planning that placed her right alongside the family chef, selecting ingredients and deciding how best to prepare certain dishes. Each of these interludes reads like a celebration, not just of Tolstoy who loved to eat, and was known to put away quite a lot during mealtime, but of food and eating in general.

Tolstoy’s late-life vegetarianism can be attributed at least in part to the acquaintanceship of one William Frey, a fierce proponent of “slaughter-free food,” in Autumn of 1854. That relationship would set the author-gourmand on the path to a meatless lifestyle reflected by the recipes found in this book. Savories like Stewed Mushrooms and Macaroni and Cheese share its pages with desserts like Blancmange and Jam Sorbet, comprising a collection of starters, sides, sweets, and more recipes to suit any meal course. These are no less decadent or enticing for the absence of meat.

The book even serves up an alcoholic offering or two in the form of a delicious recipe for Wines Waffles (to which 1/2 cup of Sauternes gets added), and Tolstoy’s Herbal Liqueur, which counts four bottles of wine among its ingredients. Aside from being easy to follow, and erring on the side of many classic dishes that will be at once recognizable, each recipe in Pavlenko’s book cuts an impressive visual that’s as well-suited to special occasions as to Sunday family dinners. This is particularly true of the many baked sweets and pastry recipes included.

What this book presented to me was trifold. It provided a window into the heart and mind of one of the world’s most respected novelists and vegetarians. It gave me an opportunity not only to get more vegetarian dishes onto my plate in the future, but to re-create time-tested ones that are familiar and delicious. Lastly, owning to its closing entry, a fiction excerpt from one of Tolstoy’s classic literary masterpieces, it has sparked in me a renewed interest in picking up my unfinished copy of Anna Karenina.

Paperback: 108 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
ISBN-10: 1533382611
ISBN-13: 978-1533382610

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