It’s time for another Friday Mail Day. Today’s letter comes from a friend of mine, who is experiencing trepidation at the thought of hosting her first vegetarian Thanksgiving after many years of hosting a non-vegetarian one.
Feel free to publically publish this message, cause I am sure there are other people out there with a similar problem who would love to hear your answer.
I have always been the hub of my family – the house that everyone visits on the holidays – especially on Thanksgiving. I can cook a turkey that is tender, moist, and perfectly seasoned. I actually have family members that start talking about it in July. Problem is, I don’t want to make it this year.
My youngest daughter has become a vegetarian, and I have supported this decision and joined her in it. We don’t eat turkey in our house anymore, but that is what is definitely expected of us by upwards of twenty family members this coming November. Instead of looking forward to the holiday, I am dreading it.
I have toyed with the idea of leaving town, but don’t know how well that is going to go over. Do you have any suggestions? When you first became vegan, did you have a similar challenge? Any advice is helpful.
Thank you for the thoughtful question! I have to tell you, when I first went vegetarian, one of the big plusses was that I no longer felt obligated to cook a turkey on Thanksgiving. Even when I ate animals, the process made me very uncomfortable. I didn’t like the feeling of holding up a heavy, headless bird. I didn’t like reaching into that bird’s body cavity to grab a plastic bag with the bird’s neck and gizzard inside. Then once I learned about how turkeys are treated in the animal industry (horrible), I was relieved to no longer align myself with that suffering.
One difference, though, in our situations is that I didn’t have 20 people who were expecting me to cook a turkey for them. So let’s turn this around. Let’s imagine you had someone in your life whose house you went to every year for Thanksgiving. Then let’s pretend that person came to the realization that she could no longer support the killing of 46 million turkeys every year for the winter holidays, which are supposedly about kindness and commonality. In that situation, how would you have felt as a guest? What would you have wanted your friend to do?
If your friend decided to go ahead and cook a turkey, despite how uncomfortable she was with it, how much she dreaded it, and how unhappy it made her, would you have enjoyed the meal? Would you have felt that your own desire to eat the well-prepared turkey trumped your friend’s desire to not cook one? Personally, I would feel far more uncomfortable putting someone else in a position to go against her own values than I would gain in any enjoyment from a meal that my friend had to ignore her feelings to make.
I know that making changes, especially changes that affect other people, can feel awkward. Some people will react well and others won’t, but all you can do is live your truth honestly. How they will react is theirs. How you react is yours. But if we never reveal who we are to those we care most about, we’re not giving them the opportunity to really know us or to surprise us with the way that they can rise up to the occasion and expand their love for us by meeting our needs in new ways.
No matter what – traditions change. Whether it’s because people move out of state, start celebrations with their own smaller nuclear families, celebrate with their in-laws, or whatever, things will change. Because of that, we don’t have to hold on rigidly to tradition. We can pick what works for us, what we want to keep, and then discover new traditions as well. I know some people who make East Indian food for Thanksgiving. I know some people who always go out to restaurants, and some people who just make a veganized version of the iconic Thanksgiving favorites. You can keep toying with things to see what works for you.
I’m not saying that your guests have to choose to come to your vegetarian Thanksgiving if that’s what you make it. And I think it’s absolutely essential that if you go that route you let your guests know ahead of time, so that they can be prepared, adjust their expectations, and choose whether or not they want to attend or if they’d prefer to attend later on in the evening for drinks and socializing. But I do think that your feelings matter. You not only do get a choice in the way that you celebrate your holiday, but you should get a choice. Plus, you’ll know that anyone who is there really wanted to be there.
If it would make you more comfortable, you might want to consider only hosting the dessert and drinks portion of the evening, or you may want to go out of town like you said and do something totally different this first year. Then your guests can get used to the idea that you will be changing things up. You can give them a year to get comfortable with the knowledge that things are different for you. This year David and I are going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I’m really excited about it. Making all of the side dishes, entrée, and then for many years hefting it to someone else’s house to reheat it is a lot of work! I’m really excited to have someone else do it for me. Plus, no clean-up!
But other years, I’ve been eager to go to the large family Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, just like when I was growing up. Not all of the dishes are vegan at that Thanksgiving, but my mom makes all of her dishes vegan, which I so appreciate, and obviously everything I bring is vegan too. (With sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, biscuits, green bean casserole, and sweet potato casserole, it’s really easy with just a few adjustments to make them vegan. With some things like cranberry sauce or roasted vegetables, no adjustments need to be made at all.)
People get so caught up in food around the holidays, but the specifics of one particular meal really have very little do with it. When you think back on Thanksgiving throughout your life, is it the specific food that comes to mind or the people? When I think of Thanksgiving as a child, what stands out for me is making origami boxes with my aunt, playing football with my cousins and uncles, and playing board games late into the wee hours of morning. While I also remember my aunt’s dessert of Pink Fluff made with Jell-o, whipped cream, and cottage cheese, what I remember more is my aunt and her sweet spirit. It wasn’t the fluff that was such a big deal. She has passed now, and it’s the memory of having her there that I hold onto this time of year.
And maybe that’s what a turkey is for your family, J. Maybe it’s not the particulars of that bird on the table. Maybe it’s that you make your home so warm and full of love and your charm, that it’s a place they want to be. And whether that centerpiece on your table is a chickpea pie or a stuffed squash, maybe your family and friends will want to be there to hear your laugh, to share a cocktail with you, and to just sit on your sofa and hear your stories. I know that’s what I would want – to just bask in you.
Making the choice to live a life in line with one’s own values doesn’t come without costs. But I would argue that the costs are much higher in living a life of ignoring one’s own feelings… After all, if we have beliefs and values, but they don’t manifest themselves in our actions, what’s the point in having them?
P.S. But back to this idea of you going out of town for Thanksgiving… Have you considered the Midwest?
What are your thoughts? What advice would you give to my friend? If you’re vegan or vegetarian, how have you navigated changing traditions at the holidays?