What would Fred Rogers eat for Thanksgiving? There's one thing we know for certain: He was not inclined to bow his head and offer thanks for a roasted turkey, let alone to carve and consume it. "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother," he often said.
Rogers stopped eating meat, fish, and fowl, including succulent turkey, in the early 1970s, not long after Frances Moore Lappe published Diet for a Small Planet, a major critique of meat production and a compelling argument for a plant-based diet that can help alleviate world hunger.
"I want to be a vehicle for God, to spread his message of love and peace," Rogers stated when explaining his vegetarianism in 1983.
Rogers was one of the rare Christian ministers at this point who believed that treating animals nonviolently and embracing a vegetarian lifestyle are deeply spiritual practices that bear witness to God's love for animals.
While Rogers wanted us to understand that loving animals means, at a bare minimum, not eating them, he also wanted us to develop everyday empathy for these so-called "lesser creatures." In the 1960s he even took up the cause of dyed Easter chicks, penning a song titled "Don't Pick on the Peeps." One of the lyrics is quintessential Rogers: "Well, how do you think the chickens feel?"
And he said this about his commitment to vegetarianism: "Part of it has to do with the animals--it's hard to eat something you've seen walking around."
The empathetic Rogers simply could not stomach the thought of eating lambs strolling through green pastures beside the still waters.
Well, how would you feel if someone wanted to eat you?
It's no surprise that his vegetarianism had to do with his love for children too. In the 1983 interview, he stated that when children "discover the connection between meal and animals, many children get very concerned about it."
With this concern in mind, Rogers steadfastly refused to show images of people eating animals on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Although a 1982 episode includes footage from a full-service restaurant, there's not one image of meat, fowl, or fish. And an entire 1984 series on food avoids any mention of eating animals.
In the Neighborhood, animals are for enjoying, nurturing, and loving--not for chewing, swallowing, and digesting.
Fred Rogers had at least one more reason for refusing to eat animals: his health. "I also enjoy the health benefits [of vegetarianism]," he stated in 1983. "I weigh about the same now as I did when I was in college."
143 pounds -- that was his weight.
"I guess I just don't need a lot of food," he said, which suggests he probably never unfastened his pants after a gluttonous Thanksgiving meal.
(By the way, 143 was his favorite number because of its association with "I love you." As he put this, "It takes one letter to say 'I' and four letters to say 'love' and three letters to say 'you.' One hundred and forty-three.")
So what did he eat?
Rogers was not a vegan but a conventional vegetarian who certainly consumed his fair share of eggs and dairy.
For breakfast he usually had milk and cereal or fresh fruit and toast. Lunchtime found him eating yogurt and crackers or cottage cheese with peaches. And for dinner he often favored tofu and vegetables. "I love tofu burgers and beets!" he told the editor of Vegetarian Times, a magazine he co-owned in the 1980s and then greatly profited from when he sold it in 1990.
So what would Fred Rogers eat for Thanksgiving?
Roasted beets with pistachios, herbs, and oranges?
Pumpkin spice granola bars?
Whatever the case may be, for Rogers, Thanksgiving was less about eating a delicious vegetarian meal than it was about offering thanks to God.
The Presbyterian minister envisioned Thanksgiving as ultimately a religious holiday, and he felt so strongly about this that, although he rarely invoked God on his program, he made sure to do so in a short 1974 segment on Thanksgiving.
To the tune of "Tree, Tree, Tree," one of his more popular songs, Rogers sang this simple prayer:
Thank you, God, for food to eat
And families and friends to love.
We love you, yes we do.
Yes, we do. We love you.
Make no mistake about it: Fred Rogers practiced a spiritual vegetarianism grounded in gratitude to God, and in his own subtle and quiet way, he modeled this radical spirituality for his millions of viewers--especially for those of us who still refuse to see that stuffing a beheaded turkey, breaking its wishbone, and picking its carcass dry are not the most appropriate ways to show love to God, let alone to our fine-feathered neighbors.