Vegetarians and the Challenge of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Turkey
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady takes a bite out of a turkey leg. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

To bring the tofu, or not bring the tofu?

It's a question that Genevieve Hartman has been rolling over in her mind for some time now. The 28-year-old vegetarian will be spending Thanksgiving at her boyfriend's professor's house in New York City. Thanksgiving used to be one of Hartman's favorite holidays, when she celebrated it with her vegetarian family in San Francisco. But ever since she moved to New York five years ago and began spending the holiday with relatives or friends, it's been a source of anxiety. Take the tofu dilemma: on the one hand, she doesn't want to get stranded at a turkey-heavy table without anything to eat, which might make her hosts feel bad. But she also doesn't want to bring attention to herself as needing "special foods," increasing the likelihood that she'll have to field questions about why she's skipping the turkey. "It's going to be awkward no matter whether I bring it or I don't," says Hartman. "Thanksgiving has a really set menu, and people are very sensitive to any changes." Click here for reader response on this story.

The number of vegetarians in the United States has doubled over the past 10 years, according to polls by the Vegetarian Resource Group, and now stands somewhere around 4.7 million. Freezer aisles at grocery stores stock a growing selection of faux meat products, from tofu buffalo wings to soy-based kielbasa. Veggie burgers have become a common fixture at barbecues. But many vegetarians, particularly those who are the only one in a large family, say Thanksgiving has become that one day of the year where they're reminded that they are indeed in the minority, a mere 2 percent of a meat-eating society. It's the one holiday, Turkey Day, that's so strongly associated with meat that not participating seems almost unpatriotic.

The problem isn't necessarily a lack of food. Between the mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams and bounty of desserts, you can usually find a way to stuff yourself silly. Instead, the vegetarian frustration is with the flurry of questions that follow saying "no thank you" to the turkey. "There was definitely some heckling," says Carly McLean, 24, of her first vegetarian Thanksgiving at her parents' house in central Illinois. She remembers her family looking at her as if she had grown a horn or a third eye during that meal. "There was a lot of, 'you're still in college, you're going through a phase, you're just rebellious.' My aunt asked, 'how can you be a vegetarian from the Midwest, isn't that an oxymoron?'" The assumption clearly was, this is Thanksgiving, therefore you eat turkey. "I think we might have spent less time talking about what we were thankful for, than 'What is Lorraine going to eat?'" says 25-year-old Lorraine Woodcheke from San Francisco. She's skipping out on Thanksgiving altogether this year, leaving this weekend for Australia. On Thanksgiving Day, she'll be climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge. "I never considered skipping any holiday with my family before," she says. "In a way, I'm sad to miss it, but at the same time, its just nice that I'm going to do my own thing and nobody has to change what they're doing."

Vegetarians aren't the only ones anxious over next Thursday's festivities. Many of their hosts find accommodating vegetarian stressful because they're used to working with such a set Thanksgiving menu. "My step-mother didn't know a vegetarian and definitely didn't like it," says Mollie Marti, 42, who married into an Iowa farm family. "It was more of the unknown that was uncomfortable for her than it was her judging. There was a nervousness on both sides." The key to a successful Thanksgiving, Marti says, has been communication about what she eats and what she doesn't. McLean has had a similar experience. While that first Thanksgiving was "pretty rough," her dad has been incredibly accommodating. Last year, the two went grocery shopping for the dinner together and he pointed out all the vegetarian products he was buying. He made the stuffing without giblets and left the bacon off of their seven-layer salad. "The thing that was really cool was some of those recipes are family tradition, going back three or four generations," says McLean. "So for him to switch that up, and make changes, was really big."

Longstanding dining traditions like the Thanksgiving turkey may be particularly difficult to depart from because their associated with such distinct smells. "Memories based on sight and sound are relatively absent of strong emotional evocation," says Thomas F. Shipley, a psychology professor at Temple University. "But because of the way the brain is wired, smells directly evoke emotions. So the thought is that with something like Thanksgiving, where you may have been eating the same foods and smelling the same smells since you were a child, it will evoke very strong emotional memories from earlier in life." That strong association between Thanksgiving and turkey might be what's given rise to so many substitutes that attempt to replicate the meat's taste and smell. Tofurky, the best-known substitute, draws mixed reviews. "Honestly, Tofurky is gross," says Ari Hershberg, who was a vegetarian for eight years. "You try and like it and you say you like it, but you really just want to be eating turkey like everyone else." (This may just be Hershberg: he went back to eating meat six years ago.) Others, like McLean, say that while vegetarian stuffing is well and good, Tofurky would be far too untraditional: "That's way too weird for my family."

And sometimes, Thanksgiving tensions can turn into their own family tradition. Shelley Frost became a vegetarian over 20 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day 1986. The 47-year-old videographer received the typical jeering and questioning from her family, largely from her cousin Bryan. She even skipped the family dinner a few years ago, trading in the turkey and the taunting for a Japanese restaurant with plenty of vegetarian options. But something didn't feel right. "Honestly, at this point, it would be weird if Thanksgiving didn't include Bryan making every lame joke he can think of, nudging me in the ribs," says Frost. "Who else but your family can make fun of you like that?" That's a holiday custom that no Tofurky could ever replace.

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