By Claudia Gonzalez Marrero (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – The ability to choose which foods you want to try, eat, incorporate, or remove from your everyday diet is a sign of food identity that expresses an individual’s and society’s ethical and cultural preferences.
Free choice when it comes to eating is determined by geographical, economic, religious and ideological factors. Biology also plays a role (appetite, sense of taste), as does psychology (eating patterns, mood and stress).
However, it’s very hard to talk about eating choices in Cuba for different reasons. First of all, because widespread rationing limits and standardizes staple foods; secondly, because of periods of shortages linked to economic crises; thirdly, because of economic, physical and socio-cultural points that are determined by production, income, access and time invested into getting a hold of a food item.
Cuban author Leonardo Padura was referring to this issue when he said: “Cuba is a country where nobody has starved to death in 50 years, but it’s also where almost nobody has eaten what they’ve wanted to in the same period of time.”
More and more people on the island are becoming interested in different diets (vegan, vegetarian, ketogenic, gluten-free) who find many resources online and in their social networks (recipes using alternative ingredients or ways to make it at home, techniques of culinary resilience) and are more aligned with alternative and internationalized ethics, philosophies and lifestyles.
For example: people who advocate for veganism or vegetarianism normally form part of animal rights groups, support agroecology and permaculture, are environmental activists and promote these practices via citizen-led programs and projects.
After Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016, the temporary “thaw” in bilateral relations and an increase in US tourism led to the rise of food ventures linked to veganism and vegetarianism, where the private sector had to respond to this demand.
According to some business owners, the idea emerged after tourists suggested that they couldn’t find many vegetarian options on menus and asked for them to make dishes without meat.
Furthermore, many Cubans from the US, Italy, Germany, came back during this same period and set up businesses in Cuba. They came with a greater understanding of the market, with vegan and vegetarian gastronomic know-how because these movements had already been growing in these countries since 2000.
There are now eco-restaurants such as El Romero, El Shamuskia’o, Camino al Sol and Café Bohemi, specializing in vegan/vegetarian dishes, although they are targeted towards tourists.
Families and community projects – such as YLA & XB, CubaVegana, ReglaSoul, Akokan – also promote these kinds of lifestyle.
Nevertheless, following and defending a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle in Cuba is difficult for many reasons.
In order to have a vitamin-rich diet, you need more than just filling up on carbohydrate-rich foods.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 44% of the 3345 calorie average of a person in Cuba comes from carbohydrates.
Products such as bread, pasta and sugars are more accessible on the island than dairy products, legumes, root vegetables, cereals, fats and meat substitutes (alternatives made out of wheat, soy, tofu or textured vegetable protein), which are needed for a balanced vegetarian diet.
Even though there is demand at agromarkets, agricultural fairs and urban farms, supply of these products is affected by import dependency and Cuba’s production system, which follows an intensive blueprint and prioritizes quantity over variety, with a heavy emphasis on seasonal produce.
Furthermore, Cuba’s State purchasing entity ACOPIO’s work, collecting and transporting produce, falls extremely short, in quality and prices of products that reach cities, too.
These problems not only hinder free choice of food but catalyze changes in culinary culture as the result of a mindset of resilience and food crisis.
Cuba’s culinary tradition, from the cookbooks that flourished in the 1930s with Blanche de Baralt to the 1960s with Nitza Villapol, based their dishes on meat and fish.
While many of them also had grains, vegetables, leafy vegetables and fruit, a product of waves of immigrants from Africa and Asia thereby enriching Cuban agriculture, national cuisine has mostly opted for the Spanish tradition, rich in animal-based foods.
That said, nutritional policies after 1959 and especially during the economic crisis in the ‘90s, changed Cubans’ culinary mindset and new food stereotypes and preconceptions emerged.
As a result of shortages and only a handful of spaces to share independent forms of food culture, some ingredients and products were set aside and linked to times of crisis within the popular imagination.
After the ‘90s, brown sugar, okra, lentils and split chickpeas, to name a few, were considered “poor people’s” food or “not a decent meal”, at the very least.
Vegetarian substitutes such as soy sparked similar rejection among the population, as it was used as an alternative in poorly presented products and sold since the nineties, such as minced soy or soy yogurts.
On the contrary, the fantasy, diversion and longing for products in shortage, such as meat and fish, amplified their value, to the point that they are considered the only sources of protein.
As a result of all of the above, you can hear phrases on the island like: “we Cubans became vegetarians in the nineties.” Memories of scarcity in this decade automatically eliminate any kind of affection for the foods they ate at this time.
In response to vegetarianism, we also hear: “grass is for horses” or the warning “you’re going to get sick like that.”
There is a strong doubt in Cuba’s social imagination that vegetarian diets are nutritionally suitable for pregnant women, children or the elderly, like the FAO assures us they are.
Despite private initiatives in Cuba today, economic, ideological and socio-cultural obstacles affect people’s free choice of food.
Veganism has obvious advantages as an alternative diet on the island: it helps to manage weight control; includes higher fiber and eliminates toxins; prevents diseases such as cancer of organs linked to digestion, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes; it’s a relatively cheap diet.
However, in order for it to be effective, it needs to be complemented with a wide and varied selection of foods, enriched with protein and amino acids that vegetables aren’t able to supplement on their own (vitamin B12, tryptophan, etc.).
Talking about veganism and vegetarianism in Cuba today isn’t a fancy or gastronomic snobbery, but a valid trend, a basic option in people’s right to food. Above all else, it implies a political stance; it represents the guarantee to live a full life, in line with individual ethics and political principles.
Even so, if the statement “the future is vegan” is true, we Cubans will have to wait to become a part of it.