Do you know how easy it is to be a vegetarian in the United States?
OK, admittedly only certain pockets of the country abound in vegetarian choices, namely the East and West Coasts. Yet, nowadays grocery stores in most small-size cities have a “health food department” stocking frozen fast foods from Amy’s Kitchen or bags of Bearitos, while Burger King and McDonalds provide veggie burger options. The V word no longer scares Heartland America.
By contrast, try living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle in a foreign country. Apart from a scanty few vibrant European venues and, of course, India, a vegetarian’s mecca, it’s tough for our breed. I’ve traveled to over seventy countries and can report that vegetarianism is not, regrettably, a global phenomena. Even in Third World nations where you’d presume meat or fish is too costly, I am always surprised by its prevalence.
I currently reside in Athens, Greece at the foot of the Acropolis. This essay does not constitute The Vegetarian Voice of Greece; I simply share my own experiences.
The good news is that Greek cuisine is robust with a cornucopia of delicious and wholesome vegetarian foods. I’m not just referring to the tasty fare familiar to patrons of U.S. Greek restaurants, including spanakopita (spinach pies), tsaziki (yogurt, garlic and cucumbers), or dolmades (stuffed grape leaves).
When you immerse yourself in traditional Greek culture, you are treated to truly original and tantalizing tastes, such as, yellow zucchini flowers stuffed with rice. Or dakos, a Cretan speciality made from hard barley rusks smothered in tomatos, oregano, feta and olive oil so luscious you can practically drink it.
Yet, these types of dishes are all regarded as mere “starters.” Dining in a taverna, I’ll share a half dozen appetizers with friends and be happily satisfied, but the waiter will inevitably say something to the effect, “OK, now what are you having to eat.” Translation: choose a meat or fish entrée. Greeks seem oblivious to the fact that their exquisite appetizers are worthy of the prime course.
There was once an exclusively vegetarian restaurant in all Athens, a city of three million plus residents. Eden’s menu was decent, but it was jarring to be in a supposedly vegetarian environment where ashtrays sit on every table and get good use.
In private homes where Greek hospitality knows no bounds, hosts tend to get flustered. What do we serve her? As if an animal free diet involves either perplexing recipes or just munching on raw carrots. Indicative of the latter narrow view, the Greek word for vegetarian is hortofagos meaning “eater of greens.”
Within a two block radius of my midtown Manhattan apartment there are at least three places to purchase a shot of wheatgrass, and when I am there I consume one daily. Here, wheatgrass is as foreign as chocolate covered ants. I have seen only one store selling fresh squeezed vegetable juice but the sole selection is carrot juice, even though the outdoor markets all sell spinach, beets, and cucumbers. The first appliance I bought upon arrival was a juicer.
Although I know many progressive minded Greeks, at the moment I cannot think of a single one who is vegetarian like me: no meat or fish, ever, period. This concept is seemingly difficult for most Greeks to grasp. I try to explain by saying I eat nothing with eyes. Invariably someone will invite me to sample some fried kalamari arguing that squid is exempt from my criteria. In this carnivore culture there is even a word, psikna (ψηκνά), that means the smoky smell of grilled meat.
I am almost a vegan, but, my goodness, it is a Herculean task to abstain from the dozens of varieties of fine feta cheese. And I can’t resist a bowl of fresh local yogurt that makes Dannon taste like glue. When topped with thick Delphi honey and crushed walnuts, it surpasses your favorite childhood ice cream sundae.
I fast regularly—juice fasts mostly, but I once did a fourteen day water fast. Greeks are very familiar with fasts. Around Easter, during Lent, you’d be surprised how common fasting is. I chuckled once I found out that “fasting” in this period means simply not eating meat or dairy for forty days. God forbid.
Yet and still, Greece is an ancient, sacred land where the earth and animals were once worshiped for millennia. Its palpable spiritual energy compliments and empowers my compassionate daily diet.