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Remembering glory days in the Catskills; A new cookbook celebrates the Vegetarian Hotel

The dining room crew with the cook in the middle gathered for a photograph at the Vegetarian Hotel when it was in its heyday.

November 26, 2013

THE CATSKILLS — In the heyday of Catskills resorts, Woodridge, NY was a thriving village in the Town of Fallsburg, where nearly a dozen hotels attracted summer clientele and weekenders from the big city. One of those resorts was the Vegetarian Hotel, catering to health-minded, mostly Jewish guests, who were seeking something more unassuming than the glitz and glamour and the non-stop pace of activities at places like The Concord and Kutschers.

Now, the Vegetarian Hotel is being celebrated in a cookbook by Verb Konviser, whose family owned and ran the hotel from the 1920s to the 1980s. “The Vegetarian Hotel Cookbook: Old-World, Unique Vegetarian Recipes from Fannie Shaffer’s Kitchen,” is a loving tribute to his mother.

Fannie Shaffer emigrated to the U.S. from Bialystok, Poland in 1906, and by 1920 she had moved her family from Brooklyn, NY to the small farming village in eastern Sullivan County. The original house, which sat on five and a half acres, had no heat, no electricity and no running water, but they had a milking cow and a large garden.

From this humble beginning, Konviser’s parents, who by then were committed vegetarians (“My mother could not accept the slaughtering of animals for human consumption”), began taking in boarding guests to make ends meet. “A lot of relatives began coming up in the summer,” Konviser said at a recent book signing event for the cookbook.

By the 1940s, the hotel had grown to 100 rooms on 100 acres of land. Guests came not only to enjoy wholesome meatless meals, based on recipes from Shaffer’s Eastern European heritage, but also to engage in sports and outdoor activities; to hear lectures about healthy living (and about the virtues of vegetarianism); and to enjoy evening entertainment, music and dancing.

As a youth, Konviser worked in the hotel, including in the dining room, where he said he learned his mother’s recipes. Another of his jobs was to bake the bread at night, including challah on Thursday night for Friday’s meal.

In the early 1950s, Konviser went off to war in Korea to serve his country, and after he returned, he took over the hotel’s operation. He owned and ran it for 29 years, until the 1980s when it was sold for a summer camp.

Resurrecting his mother’s recipes was a long process; Konviser confessed he worked on the project for 20 years. Recipes include 31 salads (from beet salad to tahini eggplant salad), 19 soups (from barley bean soup to millet soup); 54 entrees (from red kidney bean stew to noodle pudding), a handful of dressings and dips and several breads (including pumpernickel and challah).