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 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 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."
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.
'Failure of a Utopia'
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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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 tubers.
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."
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