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.
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