For nineteen years, the fourth Thursday of November consisted of the same thing: my large, extended family gathered tightly around my mother’s dining room table, eating heaps of food off the Lenox china that came out but once a year. The menu was equally standardized for as long as I knew, comprising steaming side dishes and condiments that surrounded the star of the day, the thirty-plus-pound turkey that had cooked to juicy perfection since 6 AM. Fishing for the giblets in the pan of gravy was a game my aunt relished in playing while cleaning up after the meal, as was the collective vulture-like picking at the carcass left on the platter.
For nineteen years, I, too, partook (although perhaps less exuberantly when it came to the bird’s entrails) in the standard American Thanksgiving feast. Until the year I became a vegetarian, when not only did the composition of my plate change but also that of the dinner conversation. While I was perfectly happy with my colorful red cabbage, turnips, sweet potatoes, and string beans, the sixteen other pairs of eyes that surrounded me seemed to focus in on the one thing I hadn’t served myself. It seemed necessary to remark what had meat and what didn’t—dinner rolls, no; turkey-soaked sausage stuffing, yes—and to clarify with increasing frequency as the wine bottles emptied what “exactly” I ate and didn’t; whether I’d be giving away all of my leather goods, too; and what I’d do if suddenly the world’s supply of greens was depleted and only cows were left on the earth for human nourishment. I tried to defend myself between bites with little success.
By the end of the night, my stomach ached not from the quantity of food I’d consumed, but from the inquisition that had become an unwelcome condiment to my meal.
I’d been abstaining from meat products since I started my fall semester at college that year, but Thanksgiving was the first time it had ever presented itself as an issue. My friends at school had no problem with my dietary choice, and never questioned it at all. But my meat-loving family did, and called into question my new lifestyle in a way I hadn’t ever anticipated. This scenario likely rings familiar to many who decide to become vegetarian or vegan, which is not an easy decision to make on its own. It’s even tougher when, after you belabor how to tell your family you’re vegan, they react to the news with such expressions of confusion or bewilderment. How could you give up cheese? Bacon? Cheese wrapped in bacon? Ice cream, shrimp cocktails, lasagna, Caprese salads . . . the list goes on.
What’s a food-conscious individual to do? While it’s never fun to have to defend a personal decision like your diet—especially during a holiday, and to people who are meant to accept you for who you are—a confident, rational explanation can prevent a lifetime of stressful dinner parties and lunch dates. If you’re ready to make eliminate or reduce your consumption of animal-based products, keep these things in mind when breaking the news to your tablemates.
The first person who should ask the question of “why meatless?” is no one other than yourself. Is it something you’re trying out for a week, a quick-fix or trendy crash diet, or a serious, long-term commitment? Proclaiming to the world that you’re a vegan on Monday and then parading around your office happy hour on Thursday with a plate of pigs in blankets is kind of like saying you’re a little bit pregnant: it just doesn’t make sense. You’re either in or you’re out. So you should consider how giving up about 30% of the standard food pyramid—foods and dishes you may have grown up with—will really impact your life, including your happiness, health, and general well-being. My large family tends toward Italian-style feasts at gatherings and holidays, and when I considered becoming vegetarian I thought: what about Thanksgiving? If a similar question incites fear or sadness, perhaps try limiting your meat and animal products on your own before making it official. Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 (VB6) plan is one part-time vegan approach to consider as a first step.
Working through the logistics of a meatless diet will naturally bring up the deeper, core issues you are espousing in your decision. Why am I doing this? Most likely it’s more than just factors of taste or convenience. Animal rights, the environmental effects of raising livestock, world hunger and population spikes, and the myriad health benefits of a vegetable-based diet are just a few of the strong reasons that compel people to become vegan. Parsing out exactly what you stand for and what values are important to you can not only help you feel confident about your decision but also present it to others. It’s no different from the logic behind supporting a political candidate or adopting a certain faith: if an argument or position feels right to you, then it’s worth supporting in every area of your life, including food.
But what to do when even your sound, logical argument falls flat? When I explained to my parents that I wanted to give up meat to reduce damage done to the environment, they told me that saving the cows, pigs, and chickens I’d otherwise consume over the rest of my life would not make significant impact on the global ecosystem. And, most importantly, what would I eat on Thanksgiving? Feedback like this can call into question your beliefs if they’re not quite fully formed yet, and also bolster them if they are. So instead of getting testy and dismissive of their critiques right away, I took a more understanding yet firm route when offering a rebuttal. And it worked in my favor. I didn’t have to explain all the reasons they were wrong to get across the things I knew were right. Fancy facts and statistics can help in certain cases and with certain people, but they aren’t always necessary. Simplicity and conviction make a stronger impression: when someone knows you mean business, they’re less likely to try to chip away at your platform. I knew that my individual behaviors were not enormous enough to reverse global warming and solve world hunger, but I also knew that not doing it would be giving into the tragedy of the commons: one person can make a difference, especially when there are lots of one persons acting together.
As for Thanksgiving—and any other situation where vegetable options are scarce—time proved that not having the blue cheese celery hors d’oeuvres, turkey, gravy, and sausage stuffing opened up even more options. Not only did I not miss these things, but after that first traumatic year my family gradually came to understand my diet and the parameters I’d explained. My mom and the hosts of other holidays were newly accommodating and eager to make sure I’d be satisfied. Instead of drawing attention to what I don’t eat, I make replacements that everyone is welcome to try. Last year, I brought to the table a new set of sides, like tasty edamame hummus made with tofu (shh, don’t tell!), sage quinoa stuffing made with corn meal and dried cranberries, and even vegan desserts like a dairy-free apple pound cake. No one commented on my dishes—except to say they were delicious—and the laughter, teasing, and gossip I’d known in the past returned. My stomach was full of delicious food and good memories, not anxiety.
No matter how many obstacles you face in making a new lifestyle work for you, having faith in yourself will ensure a positive outcome. The people you spend your time with will respect you even more for taking action to support a cause. And who knows?—your good example, and bountiful recipe book, may help set off the ripple effect of conscientious eating within your circle and beyond.
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