The holiday season is upon us! Yes, I know that according to the retail industry, the holiday season has been upon us since Memorial Day, but that’s a whole other rant.
According to the calendar, we are now in November and right there, on an old-fashioned, printed calendar, November 26 is adorned with a symbolic turkey. In light of current politics, we will not talk about the basis of the holiday in aboriginal genocide or illegal immigration. We will picture a greeting card Thanksgiving with snow glazing the winters but not reaching the rooftops, and family and friends gathering at a groaning board after fighting through overcrowded airports or bumper-to-bumper traffic. Getting to Grandma’s house is not as easy as traveling over the river and through the woods, anymore.
As the gracious hostess of this grand holiday reunion, you have planned your perfect menu weeks in advance. Of course, the traditional family turkey will be the centerpiece of the adult table. The children can fend for themselves at the kiddy table in the living room. Most of the kids will feed their dinner to the dog under the table, and then be returned to you in the form of doggie barf or your bedroom carpet which is an excellent justification for hardwood floor. There may be an awesome baked ham, studded with cloves and covered with pineapple rings, to accompany the holiday bird. You prepare or buy (you are cooking for twenty, after all. NO one will judge you.) time-honored side dishes such as mashed white potatoes, whipped sweet potatoes with tiny bronzed marshmallows, cheesy noodle casserole, and green beans swimming in the old stand-by, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and covered with sodium-packed French’s Onion Rings. A big tray at the end of the table contains white, white soft dinner rolls. The dessert, warming to perfect, creamy room temperature, is a pumpkin pie cheesecake piled with dessert topping. Perfect, right?
Then the proverbial monkey wrench is tossed into the holiday dinner works. You receive a call from a long lost classmate, recently divorced and without a dinner to go to so you invited him out of the goodness of your heart; or from a barely thought of cousin (that sounds a lot like me) who you’ve included in hopes of drawing her back into the family. You, my friend, are kind, warm, and hospitable but just a tiny bit inflexible when it comes to your holiday menu. (I’m not judging, just observing a personality quirk).
You (on the phone): Hi, Guest. It’s so good to hear from you. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.
Guest: It was kind of you to invite me, but I do need to talk to you about something. Since I last saw you at Grandma’s cousin’s daughter’s wedding (note: the daughter is now forty and her youngest child is in high school. It’s been a while), I’ve become a vegetarian.
You: Oh, I had no idea you’d gone back to school. Well, congratulations.
Guest: No, not a veterinarian. A vegetarian. You know, I don’t eat meat.
You: Awkward silence.
Guest: So, I was wondering if there was going to be anything I’ll be able to eat at your party?
You: I’m making turkey! Everyone loves my turkey! Turkey isn’t meat. You know, it’s like chicken. My friend told me that, and she only eats fish.
Guest: Well turkey actually is meat. Tell you what, would it be okay if I brought something that I can eat and everyone can share?
You: But it will ruin my table. It won’t fit in.
Guest: I’ve become a wonderful vegetarian cook, in the last fifteen years, and I would love to bring a beautiful quinoa salad or some brandy roasted root vegetables for everyone.
You: Well, if you must. However, I’ll have to keep it in the kitchen. It simply won’t work with my menu.
While this is not a direct transcript, I have had this conversation numerous times since I stopped eating meat. I have heard about everyone’s experiences with “almost vegetarianism” in which they still eat fish or chicken, but eat more vegetables. However, they really don’t like vegetables so they aren’t “almost vegetarians, anymore
Approximately 5% of Americans consider themselves vegetarians. About 2% of people identify as vegans (those who eat no animal products like honey, milk, eggs, or other dairy products). Believe it or not, that works out to almost 73 million people, so don’t be surprised if one of them shows up at your Thanksgiving party.
There are all kinds of reasons that people become vegetarians. Among the older age cohort, I find there are several important reasons that people turn to plant-based eating. They may be trying to make an improvement in their overall health or weight. They may choose a more limited diet to address a specific medical problem. They may be following the example of a child or grandchild to reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. They may be involved in animal rescue and follow the philosophy to “do no harm.” I fall into the “diet to address a medical need” category. I have a healthy heart and a reasonable level of cholesterol and blood pressure. Unfortunately, I also have GERD, acid reflux that is very painful and can cause Barrett’s Esophagus, a precursor to esophageal cancer. Through a process of elimination, I discovered that I feel best when I don’t eat meat, and thus was a vegetarian born.
You would think that friends and family would applaud my choice to eat a healthy diet. I meet far more people who consider my diet to be their personal challenge. Most “anti-vegetarians” think that all non-meat eating people belong to PETA and are proselytizers for the “cult.” My diet seems to inspire a certain amount of curiosity which is fine, and rudeness, which is not okay. I always think of a scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout insults a lunch guest by questioning his request for syrup to pour over his meat. Calpurnia, the Finch’s mother-surrogate, tells Scout the following: ‘There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,’ she whispered fiercely, ‘but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the tablecloth you let him, you hear?”
Boy, I wish more people followed that rule. More times that I care to count, I am asked if “that’s all you’re going to eat?”
So, here’s the thing. As a well-mannered vegetarian, I will always offer to bring a dish for myself and to share with others who might also live a veg lifestyle, or might just like something a bit less carb laden than traditional Thanksgiving food. I will not even complain, out loud at least, if you decide to re-plate my carefully styled vegetable terrine so that it doesn’t clash with the other food. (Yes, this has happened to me). I will be sad if you or others look at my carefully prepared dish and say, “Ew, what’s that?” or, “I never eat anything green.” It never hurts to expand your food profile and to experience new tastes and recipes. You might end up asking me for the recipe.
If you choose not to allow me to bring a vegetable dish because, “There are always plenty of things for everyone,” please don’t give me dirty looks when my plate contains a small helping of mashed potatoes and a tablespoon of string beans. I am not insulting you. I am just making sure that I don’t burp loudly through the rest of dinner.
As for my co-vegetarians, we should be good guests, as well.
Don’t bring a dish of your own without asking first. If the host’s menu is fixed, you have the option of eating before and making a small plate at the dinner and concentrate on being a scintillating conversationalist. You could also decline the invitation with a short, non-judgmental explanation.
Don’t try to out-hostess the hostess. I find that bourbon glazed roasted vegetables are a great addition to any buffet and can be eaten with meat-free stuffing and sweet potatoes, hold the marshmallows. If you choose to make something like stuffed acorn squash, you should probably plan to bring a lot. A layered vegetable loaf may be a better choice because it looks beautiful and serves many guests.
If you are an ethical vegetarian, this is not the time to preach to an unwilling audience. No one wants to hear about what happens in a slaughterhouse, at dinner. In the best of all possible worlds, talk about the latest series you binge-watched on Netflix and avoid food-based conversations all together. This year, I’d probably avoid national politics, too.
If someone insists on hearing the (medical) details of why you chose a vegetarian lifestyle, keep your explanation short and non-graphic. My GERD or your clogged arteries are not great conversational topics for any dinner table.
Looking back through history, many famous, creative people have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle. The line extends from Leonardo Di Vinci through Leo Tolstoy to Paul McCartney and Natalie Portman. Although I came to this lifestyle by as a reluctant convert, I’m pleased to join this illustrious fellowship of humane eaters.
There’s a joke that says, “I hope one day chickens will be able to cross the road without being judged on their motives.” I wish that applied to vegetarians, too. Don’t judge our motives, just enjoy our company at this holiday and every other special occasion.