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

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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

What was also evident at the festival is just how peripheral vegetarianism is here. Most passersby were confused and/or titillated by the human meat display (which lasted about 90 seconds; the Lithuanian October isn't very forgiving), and the intended message seemed to sail past most. But, as a girl in a cow costume with distractingly large udders emphasized, any interest is good interest.

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Menachem Kaiser

Older Lithuanians were barely represented at the festival. This is perhaps the most defining characteristic of vegetarianism in this country: the impassable generational divide. Anyone raised pre-independence doesn't really have a context for vegetarianism, because, as was repeatedly explained to this spoiled American, decent food selection was, for the masses, an unimaginable luxury. (Although some Lithuanians serving in the Russian army became vegetarians by default—the meat was barely edible.) Unnecessary choosiness is, to the older generation, radically stupid. A mother of a pair of adorable protesting chickens explained that while her children are vegetarians at home, they eat meat at their grandmother's. It's not worth the fight. Jurate, a festival volunteer, went full veggie at 15, and her parents dragged her to monthly doctor visits to make sure she wasn't killing herself. They also warned her, as she helpfully translates, "Your boobs won't grow up!"

But the younger generation grew up in a drastically wider world: They study and incorporate philosophies and religions that were unknown, even forbidden, to their parents; they travel extensively and interact with foreigners; and, of course, they consume gargantuan amounts of Western media. And vegetarianism is sneaking in like a stowaway. Hindu philosophy is popular, as is yoga—the café at the Yoga Center is one of the best-kept vegetarian secrets in Vilnius. Gourmets are popping up, tastes are evolving, and chefs are beginning to experiment with meatless cuisine. Western health fads have a foothold and a following. Hare Krishna devotees march daily along Didzioji gatve, a main pedestrian thoroughfare. All of these movements have, in differing degrees, an element of vegetarianism. Even music is smuggling in vegetarianism—an entire group of local vegetarians I met were introduced to ethical eating by Scandinavian punk rock bands.

It's appropriately strange that the most emblematic vegetarian I met in Lithuania happens to be the country's biggest
rock star.

The country's economic development is also encouraging vegetarianism by sharpening the moral contentions that underlie ethical eating in general. Lithuanian farms have historically been small and local, but with economic progress—and, especially, E.U. membership—many of these businesses were pushed out or centralized into mini-factory farms. Suddenly, animal cruelty became an issue, eating local transformed from a default into a decision, and vegetarianism became that much more politicized. (Recently, a Danish company, hampered by stricter Danish laws, built a massive hog confined animal feeding operation here, to ineffective protests.) Not that long ago, meat could be readily bought from a neighbor; now, my grocery's beef might not even come from this country.

Vegetarianism's progress here isn't hampered by lack of potential motivation but by infrastructure. But that's changing, too. About a week after the vegetarian festival, the only vegan store in Lithuania—probably in the entire Baltic states—opened in Vilnius. (The owner, however, is Polish, as are all the soy products, which are not available here in any recognizable form.) And RawRaw, a sleek and modern raw foods restaurant in downtown Vilnius, has been serving very satisfied (but occasionally confused—no cheese?) customers for over a month. (Though again, the owner/manager isn't Lithuanian, but a Kyrgyzstanian expat.)

It's appropriately strange that the most emblematic vegetarian I met in Lithuania, Andrius Mamontovas, happens to be the country's biggest rock star (though an unbelievably nice and down-to-earth rock star, a real mensch). Andrius has toured all over the world, and, like many vegetarians here, was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism. He speaks comfortably but not scarily about karma and retribution. His vegetarianism is, naturally, not just vegetarianism: He quit alcohol and cigarettes along with animal products. And he's rock star-cool about all the progress. "The best part of all this change?" he says. "I have more and more to eat."

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Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania.

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