Vegetarians push soy, but Cubans prefer pork
By JENNY BARCHFIELD
HAVANA -- Juicy hamburgers and sandwiches stuffed thick with sausage
aren't your typical vegetarian fare - but that's what is on the menu at
El Carmelo, a state-run restaurant that promoted healthy, meat-free eating.
"Meat-free" is not a phrase that goes over well in Cuba, an island where
long-standing privations have forged a strong, emotional bond with food
- especially cuisine that once oinked, mooed or clucked.
Facing the harsh reality of its tough customers, El Carmelo eventually
replaced such vegetarian items as soy picadillo with greasy pork chops.
That has been the fate of the island's half-dozen or so other vegetarian
restaurants as well. Opened in the 2000s under the Communist
government's go-vegetarian initiative, they have all either closed down
completely or replaced soy and vegetables with meat.
It's a Cuban dilemma: How can the government promote healthy eating when
the country is full of die-hard carnivores, and when vegetarian meals
remind people of an acute food shortage in the early 1990s that made
meat an almost unattainable luxury?
Elsewhere in the world, vegetarianism is gaining proponents who cite
evidence that eating less meat is good for your heart and reduces the
risk of certain types of cancer.
But in Cuba, the island's handful of vegetarians face an uphill battle.
Meat is such a central pillar of the Cuban diet, or at least the idea of
the Cuban diet, that the rare decision to embrace vegetarianism is
widely seen as bordering on insanity.
"When I tell people I'm a vegetarian, everyone says 'Girl, you're crazy.
You can't survive just on grass,'" said Yusmini Rodriguez, a 34-year-old
translator who stopped eating meat 13 years ago out of ethical concerns.
"It's been a constant battle," she said, detailing obstacles that ran
the gamut from her family's incomprehension and dead-set opposition, to
the scarcity and sometimes prohibitively high prices of fresh produce,
to the near-total absence of meatless options from restaurant and
"My family still doesn't get it, but after all these years, at least
they finally respect my decision, so eating vegetarian at home is doable
now, even if it's a headache," said Rodriguez, a slip of a woman whose
tiny frame belies her iron will. "But the moment I step outside, it's
practically impossible. Here, if it doesn't have meat in it, it's not
Rodriguez and some of the other dozen members of the island's vegetarian
community say the Cubans' love affair with meat is linked to the
country's "Special Period": an era of extreme hardship and acute food
shortages in the early 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union,
Cuba's main benefactor at the time.
The country's rations system ensured no one starved to death by
providing every citizen with a small monthly supply of basic goods. But
Cubans experienced true hunger during those dark years, missing many
meals, making do with very small and unappetizing ones, and going months
without meat. The average food intake dropped from 2,865 calories per
day before the Special Period to 1,863 in 1993, according to French
journalist Olivier Languepin's book "Cuba, the Failure of a Utopia."
"It was a time of forced vegetarianism that left a really bad taste in
people's mouths," said Nora Garcia Perez, a militant vegetarian who
heads a Havana-based animal protection group. "The 'Special Period'
really hurt the cause of vegetarianism in this country. ... Meat became
an obsession for people who lived through that time."
The country's food supplies have since recovered, and most people are
now able to eat some kind of meat several times a month. Many eat it
daily, sprinkling bits of pork, chicken or fat onto workaday dishes like
rice and beans or eating ham and cheese sandwiches at lunch stands.
Ironically for a fertile, tropical country, it's fresh produce that
remains hardest to get. Even during the height of the winter growing
season, the selection at state-run vegetable markets is largely limited
to lettuce and cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers and a variety of
Restaurateur Tito Nunez has made it his mission to put produce back into
the Cuban diet.
Nunez converted to vegetarianism in the early 1990s because it eased his
chronic intestinal problems. In 2003, he founded El Romero, billed as an
eco-restaurant and one of the island's two surviving vegetarian eateries.
Located in the Las Terrazas natural reserve of rolling, palm-covered
hills about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Havana, El Romero goes
beyond garden-variety vegetables, spinning forgotten and little-known
plants into delectable dishes.
On its extensive menu: ceviche made from the stems of lily pads that
grow wild on a nearby pond, yucca and sweet potato "meatballs," pumpkin
flower-paste crepes, sauteed prickly pear cactus with aromatic herbs,
and for dessert, mousse made from chocolate, lemon and pumpkin, wrapped
in a palm leaf.
"Cubans tend to think, 'If it's not rice and beans or pork, I'm not
eating it,' so when people see all these plants they've never even heard
of on the menu, they tend to be really reluctant at first," said Nunez,
a 58-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and an easy smile. "Then they try
the food and see that it's not just 'grass' we're serving, and that in
addition to being healthy and animal-friendly, it's also really delicious."
Nunez has worked to make El Romero accessible to locals by offering
neighborhood youths apprenticeships with the cooks and at the
restaurant's organic farm, where most of the ingredients are sourced.
And to make the restaurant affordable for islanders, who earn an average
of $20 a month, El Romero charges its Cuban clients just a fraction of
the menu's list price.
Still, despite its success, 90 percent of El Romero's clients remain
foreigners, mostly tourists from Britain, Germany and Holland.
"When you're dealing with something as ingrained as eating habits, it's
just about the hardest thing to change," Nunez said.
"I know that I'm not going to turn people into vegetarians by just
talking about it. The only way to convince people is by sitting them
down at the table and showing them there's so much out there besides pork."