Four Ways for a Vegetarian to Approach Thanksgiving

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 21 2013 5:44 PM

Four Ways for a Vegetarian to Approach Thanksgiving

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One not-so-good approach is to bring a picture of a live turkey to the dinner table, hold it in front of your face, and say to your relatives in a high-pitched voice, "Don't eat me!"

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This week, BuzzFeed’s crack team of virologists churned out an article titled “What It’s Like Being a Vegetarian at Thanksgiving.” And by “article,” I of course mean a collection of one-liners paired with moderately relevant GIFs and nonprofessional photographs stolen from people’s blogs. The piece is both amusing enough and accurate enough, in terms of capturing the dynamic between vegetarians and nonvegetarians on a day dedicated to butchering a large bird. (“You’re the butt of countless Tofurkey jokes. Your drunk uncle asks if you’re ‘still doing that weird no-meat thing.’ ” Etc.)

Where its accuracy falters, though, is in the author’s suggestions for “delicious things that are (almost always!) vegetarian.” The list includes mashed potatoes (which sometimes contain chicken stock) and pumpkin pie (which, if made with Pillsbury frozen crust, has lard in it). Then there’s the suggestion that vegetarians bring a sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows to the meal. Marshmallows almost always contain gelatin, which is made from animal collagen. Thanksgiving is even more of a minefield for vegetarians than BuzzFeed seems to realize. (In addition to the aforementioned items, the zone of ambiguity includes stuffing, often moistened with chicken stock, and gravy, which can be vegetarian but is usually made with turkey drippings.)

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There are four main ways a vegetarian can approach the fourth Thursday in November. If you are like the granddaughter in the third letter of this week’s Dear Prudence, and/or if you’ve been looking for a foolproof way to become estranged from your family, you can demand that no animal flesh whatsoever be present on the Thanksgiving table. A more moderate approach is to request that every dish apart from the turkey be made vegetarian—an appeal that may elicit grumbles from your family, depending on how much they like sausage in their stuffing. (This request will go down easier if you offer to do as much cooking as possible.) A laissez-faire vegetarian can adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as my colleague J. Bryan Lowder proposed in a controversial article called “Chicken Stock Doesn’t Count as Meat” earlier this year. Many lacto-ovo vegetarians unthinkingly eat cheese containing animal rennet—so is a little gelatin once a year really going to kill you? Extremely permissive vegetarians might even eat a little turkey on Thanksgiving, to make Grandma happy.

I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, and I’ve always adopted approach No. 2: asking for vegetarian side dishes. This has always been successful for me because I have an enormously menschy family. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of some affectionate ribbing from my most barbecue-devoted uncle, but for the most part my family has been accommodating to the point of coddling. My mom has historically made two batches of stuffing, one with chicken stock and one with vegetable stock, and one year we made a mushroom gravy so I’d have something savory to put on my mashed potatoes. Aunts and cousins have voluntarily refrained from putting marshmallows on the sweet potatoes or bacon in the Brussels sprouts. I’ve insisted on making my own pie crust with butter instead of buying the pork-fat-laden kind, and no one has complained.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with a laissez-faire—or, if you like, willfully ignorant—approach. Consuming a little chicken stock once a year will neither do me any lasting harm nor make much difference to the poultry industry’s profits. Other vegetarians will disagree with me, of course, and that’s fine. But if any meat eaters who wish their vegetarian brethren would loosen up are reading this blog post, I will note that I’ve relaxed my Thanksgiving stance only after my family respected and accepted my dietary choices for many years. You might want to adopt a similar policy toward your vegetarian relatives, and lay off the Tofurkey jokes.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong.