Vegetarians push soy, but Cubans prefer pork

Restaurants face uphill battle in nation of carnivores with passion for pork

Cuban chef Alfredo Varela prepares Super Romero, a vegetarian dish at El Romero last 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. (Associated Press)Cuban chef Alfredo Varela prepares Super Romero, a vegetarian dish at El Romero last 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. (Associated Press)
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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?

Chef Langaney cooks vegetarian food using solar energy at El Romero last month. On its extensive menu: ceviche made from the stems of lily pads that grow wild, yucca and sweet potato "meatballs," pumpkin flower-paste crepes, sauteed prickly pear cactus with aromatic herbs. (Associated Press)

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Chef Langaney cooks vegetarian food using solar energy at El Romero last ... more >

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 included her family’s incomprehension and dead-set opposition and, to the scarcity and sometimes prohibitively high prices of fresh produce, and the near-total absence of meatless options from restaurant and cafeteria menus.

“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 Ms. 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 considered food.”

Ms. 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.

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