Eres Vegetariana? Quieres Pollo?

When you become a vegetarian in a Latin household, you have to understand you are not just embracing a new lifestyle, you are also undertaking the task of acclimating your family to a new culture. For many Latinos, being a vegetarian is as foreign and exotic as Burrundi.

“Que eso? Un baile nuevo? “

They may have heard of it, but will probably have a completely different notion than you of what that means.

For years, I mean years, this was the conversation in my grandmother Tata’s kitchen:

Tata: Has comido?
Tata: Hice bistec
Sandy: Tata, soy vegetariana
Tata: Se me olvido! Pues mija tengo pollo y pescado tambien en la nevera
Sandy: Tata, no como ningun tipo de carne
Tata: Pero, tu te vas a mas a morrir de mal alimentacion. Eso no es sano.

This occurred every single time I would go visit her! No fail. I sometimes thought I should just record my responses because it was the same conversation with every other older Latino that would offer me food. While she doesn’t get it, she at least backs off now after the first “no, thank you.” Of course, this make me feel crappy, because I am denying my grandmother the opportunity to feed me her food, and I know it must break her heart.

For Latinos, Meat=Nutrition

I grew up in New York City. In fact, my parents had a meat market in the city. (Pls leave Freudian analysis out of this lol). As a good immigrant kid, I started working at the bodega as soon as I could walk, and this gave me a really good education on Latino’s relationship with food – which is really quite complicated and very reflective of what we have gone through as people.

We love meat. We really do. For my grandmother, and many like her, eating meat means you are giving your body the “ultimate” mega nutrients¬† to stay healthy and strong.

How many of us remember being a kid, sitting at the table, not being able to eat another morsel. A parental figure always offer you the same compromise:¬† “Eat a few more pieces of the meat, and that’s it.” They never forced you to finish the vegetables or rice, it was always the meat.

I’m sure this relationship to meat is historical reason and probably to poverty in some way. (I’m Cuban, and I can’t even count how many stories my family has that revolve around either not being able to get meat, or the witty ways they used to obtain it. I’ll leave that for another post). However, for me, our attachment to meat has a lot to do with our lack of education in this area.

I’m the first one to recognize that traditional diets tend to be quite balanced. However, in an era where meat is widely accessible and mass produced, and all of our dishes taste the same because we are using the same seasoning (which, btw, has MSG) we are no longer eating a traditional diet. How we are using meat in 2010 is quite different than how it was used in 1910…and lets not even touch upon the subject of quality.

Anyway, once you become a vegetarian, be ready to repeat yourself constantly. I would also encourage you to use this opportunity to educate your family. My mom died of stomach cancer, and to this day my biggest regret is not having taken her on the educational journey I had just begun a year before she had gotten sick. I’m quite positive that if her eating habits had changed, she probably would still be with us today.



  1. Raul ColonNo Gravatar on February 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Interesting story on how your life has been impacted by becoming vegetarian very similar to mine.

    My conversation with my grandma has been the same and with many other family members they purely see it as “changeria” but I have learn to live with it.

    You no longer have your mom and I have a constant struggle with mine to make her change how she treats her body. It is their decision and no matter how much it is available to them sometimes they will stay with their old ways.

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  3. ClaraNo Gravatar on February 25, 2011 at 5:26 am

    It’s amazing how a change in diet can affect the body and mind. Thankfully my family embraces the fact that I don’t eat “critter”. I think they kind of enjoy being surprised by how good a vegetarian meal can taste!

  4. No Gravatar on February 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Clara I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment “how good a vegetarian meal can taste” I always tell my dad, who is a carnivore that if he doesn’t season meat it won’t taste like anything. He didn’t believe that what I did was cooking until he came to my house to visit us. I made him a soy crumble sloppy joe topped with cheese and accompanied by mixed vegetables. He said that the sandwich was good and since he is a charlatan at times, I asked him if he was serious. He stated that he was surprised at how good the sandwich was and ate the whole thing. He said he did not feel stuffed like he usually is when he eats meat. My mother had several tortillas filled with the crumbles and vegetables. She must have eaten about five. Again their amazement at how savory a vegetarian dish can be made me happy. I did not have to blindly defend my cooking.

  5. Raul ColonNo Gravatar on February 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    That is great that your family is engaged. I guess it will take some time till mine understands if they do.

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