Vegetarians in the Land of Meat: Eastern Europe's Dietary Pioneers


Menachem Kaiser

About a month ago, some friends and I were dining in the small porticoed cafe abutting the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, immediately behind the town square. I, a well-meaning semitarian, ordered the innocent-sounding fried potato wedges.

A scant 30 minutes later, the wedges arrived, nicely browned and spiced, with a side of mayonnaise (the Baltic dip de rigueur)—and topped with fried pigs' ears. My fault, I suppose: I hadn't requested some chips, please, and hold the animal appendages.

So, no, Lithuania isn't a vegetarian wonderland. The largest restaurant chain in the region, Cili Pica, has exactly four vegetarian options (none very good), out of more than 40 pizza flavors. And Cili is a tourist-heavy establishment; most restaurants barely bother beyond the token salads. Veggie burgers are cheap and lightweight, as they lack a patty: it's just a bun, vegetables, and some forlorn condiment. I polled my writing class of about 30 Vilnius University sophomores to see if any were vegetarians. None were, though one girl knew a vegetarian.

Young children and teenagers were dressed as animals—though mostly as animals, curiously enough, that no one here would ever imagine eating.

This isn't to say that vegetarianism is wholly nonexistent in Lithuania—vegetarians can and do survive here. Seasonal produce is exceptional and affordable, and a tradition of home cooking runs deep. Besides, it's silly to expect mainstream vegetarianism in a country that cast off Soviet rule only 20 years ago—it was hardly conducive to conscientious food choice. As a movement and a lifestyle, if not a philosophy, Lithuanian vegetarianism is in its infancy, as is vegetarianism in Eastern Europe as a whole (with the curious exception of Poland, where it's far more common). Its emergence is being accelerated by Lithuania's development (which, until recently, was blazing) and westernization, and by the subcultures the country is adopting. Lithuania thus serves as a "vegetarianism barometer" of sorts, a harbinger of regional change. It's an instructive (and, admittedly, entertaining) study of the dissemination of a really, really foreign idea.

I recently attended Lithuania's first-ever vegetarian festival, held in the heart of downtown Vilnius. Interestingly and tellingly, it wasn't really about vegetarianism: More than half of the vendors were promoting something not strictly vegetarianism-related, but more homeopathic-ish, like head-massage technique, or the activities of the national grass academy. There was some low-intensity, cute protestation: Young children and teenagers were dressed as animals—though mostly as animals, curiously enough, that no one here would ever imagine eating, like kangaroos, or, in one magnificent case, a dragon—and carried slogans (in Lithuanian) such as "Why Are You Behaving So Awful?"

This cuteness did not extend to the main event. About 15 young ladies in nothing but their underwear arranged themselves in two rows on a raised stage, supine, bums down, developed chests up. The stage's floor, girls and all, was then layered with saran-wrap, after which an exaggerated sale sticker, announcing the price of human meat per kilo, plus some statistic on annual animal deaths, was slapped on the corner. Paint was then dribbled all over the package, presumably to represent blood. (I say presumably because the paint was of a decidedly pink hue, not red, which I presume was either an oversight or a nod to aesthetic sensibilities or squeamishness.) All subsequent presentations had no visible connection to vegetarianism: Indian dance routine, Chau gong performance, improv sketch group in overalls...

The salient point here is that Lithuanian vegetarianism isn't yet robust enough to support its own festival. It's invariably married to some "greater" cause, like general holistic health (what Lithuanians call "ecology"), or standard hippiedom, or something vaguely Eastern. The enthusiasm is there, but it's not useful for much beyond bluntly "raising awareness." There's no real dialogue yet—just some mostly ignored shouting and buckets of pink paint.

NEXT: Yoga, factory farming, and other reasons for the cultural change

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Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania.

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