Eating for Joy: How I Celebrate My Meat-Heavy Caribbean Culture As A Vegetarian

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Recently, I saw a post on Twitter with a list of about thirty different traditional Caribbean dishes with the caption “How Caribbean are you?” 

Each dish had one point next to it, and the purpose was to count up how many points you have for each dish that you don’t eat. After I finished counting… I realized that if I shared my score, I would get my Caribbean card revoked. 

I’m a first generation American in a Caribbean family (St. Lucian), and my mother and I are the only ones who are vegetarian. Everyone else in my family eats meat, as the vast majority of Caribbean people do. My mother stopped eating meat just about two years before I was born, but I’ve been vegetarian since birth. This means that while I grew up watching my grandmother cook all of the classic Caribbean dishes, I’ve never actually eaten any of them.

Being American-born already causes people to question the legitimacy of your Caribbean-ness, so adding in missing out on things like oxtail, saltfish, or curry goat? It makes some people think that you know close to nothing about your island’s food. 

But the reason why I was raised vegetarian couldn’t be more Caribbean—my parents are Rastafarian, which is a prominent spiritual and cultural movement originating in Jamaica and throughout the West Indies.

Part of the Rastafarian livity is to eat an “ital” diet, which excludes meat. Rastas value the spirituality of a meat-free diet and the physical health benefits. There are Rasta people across the globe, but it is a distinctly West Indian culture. 

Most people gravitate towards Rastafari in their young adulthood, which means that if they’re from the Caribbean, they spent years eating and preparing the traditional dishes of their island. Once they become Rasta and change their diets, their culture does not leave them. The ital diet does not look like America’s veganism; ital food is still Caribbean food, and most people who are Rasta still use the same spices that they were raised on — that’s where the true flavor lies, anyway. 

Regardless of where you’re from, if you’re considering removing meat from your diet for whatever reason and you’re hesitant because of how integral meat is to your country’s traditional dishes, know that it’s a valid concern. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to continue eating meat in order to comfortably participate in your culture. However, if you really want to let go of meat, you should know that this doesn’t have to mean letting go of your culture.

If you still have elders in your family or anyone else whose cooking you cherish, ask them about how their meals are prepared. They may not have recipes written down — since if you’re Black you know that across the diaspora we tend to measure out our ingredients mostly by instinct — but you can study them while they cook, and figure out ways that you can make the same meals, just minus meat. Focus on spices, seasonings, and sauces. You can also add in substitutes for the meat versions of the meals, like soy mock meats, mushrooms, eggplants, or cauliflower. 

No matter how you do it, the important thing is that there’s no one way to eat. Decide on whatever is both healthiest for your specific body/lifestyle and what brings you the most joy. But once you’ve decided, don’t feel limited by whichever choice you make. Your Caribbean card/Black card is irrevocable! 

Bring the flavor of your heritage to every dish that you make, if you want to. And don’t punish yourself for “cheating” every once in a while: if there are special family gatherings or holidays where you feel left out because you can’t eat the ceremonial dishes, there is no penalty for taking a break from your diet to participate in something that feels traditional.

There’s also nothing wrong with not participating—I’m a St. Lucian who has never eaten ham on Christmas, but I don’t feel any less St. Lucian, and I experience the holidays in the same way the rest of my family does. Some of my family even looks forward to the ital dishes that my mother makes, since we bring something to family gatherings that no one else does (don’t knock curry tofu until you try it).

Food is an essential part of culture and can be very personal, but the way you eat should make you feel like the best version of yourself that you can be. Your diet shouldn’t make you feel isolated nor should it control every aspect of your life. 

Food should and can be liberating—no matter what you eat or where you come from. 

What have been your own cultural experiences with food? Let us know in the comments below!

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