Thanksgiving was a date I dreaded when newly vegan. Though fully committed to not consuming animals, and confidant I was doing the right thing, I felt some self-pity at the thought of the holiday meal. I imagined sitting at the table in front of a plate full of cookbook described single servings while my family shared dishes that have been painstakingly prepared by my mother annually for decades, using recipes inscribed only upon her memory. Despite my dread, I took a deep breath and plowed forward with faith that if I did what was best for the animals, and what was best for myself, the result would be what was best, too. In the end, I was not let down.
The great irony of Thanksgiving, to me, is that so many of the lovely holiday decorations celebrate the striking beauty of turkeys, standing tall and proud with their beautiful splay of tail feathers and colorful snood, alive and vibrant -- yet the reason for the turkey's prevalence in seasonal décor is not because the holiday pays tribute to the lives of these beautiful birds, but because of a tradition of killing and consuming them. The beauty of Thanksgiving, the spirit of gratitude, the celebration of community, is in so many ways negated by its predominant main course.
In going vegan, I was forced to reevaluate what Thanksgiving truly meant to me. Like so many, I closely associated the holiday with the consumption of a turkey. Once I followed my truth to a plant-based path, I discovered this was not truly what I enjoyed about the holiday -- what lifted my spirits was the connection with people I loved, the focus on thankfulness and the enjoyment of a carefully planned meal. Thanksgiving means many things to many people. For some it is a time of community events beyond immediate family -- such as school performances and donating food to those in need. For some it means revisiting a childhood home and playing sports in the backyard (or watching them on TV). There are a variety of things that make Thanksgiving a special holiday for many -- but I doubt that the untimely end of the life of a sentient being is what makes it uplifting for anyone.
I've found that my Thanksgivings with family are best for all if I don't verbally attack the people I'm with for having endorsed the death of the bird on the table. That doesn't mean I condone it, but instead I infuse the meal with plenty of delightful vegan offerings -- reminding the people I love that they have compassionate options. There are also wonderful, positive resources available. One holiday weekend, farm animal rescue and advocacy organization Farm Sanctuary's president and co-founder Gene Baur appeared on HLN network's "ISSUES with Jane Velez-Mitchell" to speak about Thanksgiving, providing a wonderful opportunity for me to sit with my family in front of the TV and learn together. Endorsed by famous vegan Ellen DeGeneres, Farm Sanctuary's "Adopt-A-Turkey" project is a way for people to express their compassion for these beautiful birds through sponsorship, and offers a website that can be shared with loved ones. I've found that my family is much more receptive to exploring a website on their own than being reminded of the life lost for the sake of their meal while sitting at the table.
Though I have offered to prepare all of my own food, my mother enjoys veganizing her Thanksgiving recipes. It was fun to introduce her to vegan marshmallows by Sweet & Sara so that she could prepare her delicious candied yams dish without any animal products. She was happy to discover that her stuffing is great made with vegetable instead of meat broth, and margarine as opposed to butter. There's always the option of preparing Tofurky as a main course, but the foods I really enjoy eating on Thanksgiving tickle the senses with the fruits of the earth -- dishes that feature unprocessed vegetables, grains and legumes. My favorite cookbook for Thanksgiving is "Vegan With a Vengeance" by Isa Chandra Moscowitz. Its hearty recipes are full of flavor and not too challenging for someone who lacks culinary genius, like me. The book's "Ginger Roasted Winter Vegetables" includes parsnips, carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and fresh ginger. The colors are rich shades of browns and oranges that reference the beautiful changing leaves of the season without causing pain to an animal. To me, this is in the true spirit of a Thanksgiving bounty. Most popular with my family, though, are vegan desserts. My holiday tradition of preparing a pie continued when I transitioned to a plant-based diet, a favorite being Vegan Key Lime Pie.
Besides the Thanksgiving meal itself, the long holiday weekend presents a great opportunity to introduce vegan-doubting family members to even more delectable animal-free treats. I've surprised mine with scones for breakfast and chewy chocolate chip cookies as sweet snacks. Despite the foods' (unnoticeable) lack of dairy, my meat-eating relatives couldn't deny their deliciousness. Before I went vegan, Thanksgiving was a time when I spent lazy days in front of the television, letting my mother cook most of the holiday meal. Now I look forward to turning on the radio and spending hours cooking in the kitchen. It is so much more rewarding for me to participate in providing the weekend's meals and munchies than passively letting someone else do all of the work.
Vegan Thanksgiving recipes abound in cookbooks and online. Farm Sanctuary devotes a section of their "Adopt-A-Turkey Project" website to animal-free recipes. Mercy for Animals also makes vegan Thanksgiving recipes available at their site. And the New York Times just published a blog about celebrated wellness warrior Kris Carr featuring vegan Thanksgiving recipes.
There are many homes that prepare fully vegan Thanksgivings, some that I've been invited to. So far I've continued attending the meal at my mom's, to be with family. With each year I find it more difficult to endure the proximity of such a beautiful bird whose life was taken only for the sake of an empty tradition. However, Thanksgiving provides many opportunities to advocate for animals in a peaceful and loving way with omnivorous relatives, and share the joy of partaking in delectable home-cooked, plant-based treats with people I love.
Maya Gottfried is the author of books, essays and articles for children and adults. She has previously written on her experience with cancer for crazysexylife.com. Her autobiographical essay "Untitled" appeared in the book "Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes." Maya's most recent book for children, "Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary," is about the real-life residents of national farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary. Read her blog and buy her books on Red Room.