I grew up in a household of very loud, opinionated people. There were hardcore conservatives and what my father called "bleeding heart liberals" among us and everyone was at each others' throat vying to make their point. I always remember gearing up for what I knew would be a test of endurance and persistence for who could make the final point; it was a matter of pride to hold your own in the face of the jeers of opposition. Thanksgiving was not warm and cozy, but it was lively, and I learned to thrive in -- and actually appreciate -- the chaos.
But when it was time to carve the bird, everyone came together and partook of the ritual. My father got out the electric carving knife and then each of us put in our requests for body parts. I wanted the white meat of the breast, one of my brothers wanted a leg, and my mother fished around for the wishbone. My other brother would scoop out the stuffing from the cavity, and our mouths would water as the bird was disassembled and passed around. Around the meat, we would pile on mashed potatoes and gravy, brussel sprouts, green beans, and cranberry sauce. Dessert was pumpkin pie and apple crumble with whipped cream. We all had a laugh that there was a lull between arguments while we enjoyed the feast, finally in a sort of trance over our shared love of the food. The tradition of sharing this meal brought all the disparate parts of the family together, and we celebrated despite -- or maybe because of -- our differences.
So imagine the pushback I got when I went vegetarian, and then vegan. It wasn't pretty. It was like I had betrayed the family on what was the foundation of our unity (remember, we didn't have a ton of common ground as it was): "What do you mean you don't want to eat turkey?! People have been dining on birds since the beginning of time!" Well, that wasn't altogether true; I said, "The first settlers apparently dined on bean soup with the native Americans. But besides that, I watched some pretty awful video of how turkeys -- who are really gentle and familial animals - were treated egregiously as they were processed and slaughtered for our big day. Their toes and part of their beaks are cut off without anesthesia; they are smashed together in extremely close and dirty quarters; they are given huge amounts of antibiotics (as are all factory farmed animals); they are fed rejected meat products, sawdust, and leather tannery by-products; and they are all too often dunked in scalding water and dismembered while still alive and conscious."
I looked at my parents and said, "Look, you raised me to say 'please' and 'thank you'. You raised me to be a nice person, a person who does not do unkind things. You raised me to not hurt animals. You raised me to be thoughtful and to question things if they don't feel right to me. It's become impossible to avoid the conclusion that eating turkey doesn't jibe with those very basic and wise principles. I don't need meat to survive and it's just too cruel and ugly to feast on without feeling I've betrayed the values you've tried to instill in me."
Accusations of self righteousness flew around the house. Jabs and making fun were the talk for a few years. But I was adept at handling criticism and opposition; I held my own (without imposing my will on anyone else). Then, when we moved Thanksgiving to my house in California, things began to quietly settle down. I served sliced Tofurky (far surpassed this year by Gardein, found in Whole Foods deli section) and mashed potatoes made with Earth Balance instead of butter, and soy milk instead of milk. The stuffing was made of bread crumbs and vegetable stock, the brussel sprouts and beans and cranberry sauce were the same. The pumpkin pie and apple crumble were made from recipes by Tal Ronnen and topped with vegan whipped cream. And the truth is, it all looked the same but felt better.
And everyone loved the food; no one missed the traditional bird. The conversation was still chaotic and loud and lively. We disagreed on what we always disagreed on. But we got the foundational stuff -- the food -- right. We all shared the common desire to do a good thing and be a little thoughtful. As a family, we sacrificed a teeny tiny bit of tradition in favor of applying our shared values to what we eat, at least for that one meal a year. For that, I am truly grateful!