My favorite holiday of the year is quickly approaching. Every year, my family hosts an enormous thanksgiving party at my parents house with all of our Latin friends and family. Some years we have 20 guests, other years we’ve had 50. And perhaps unlike the quiet celebrations in many American homes where people seem to (at least in my view) ease through a quick cooking, a nice Thanksgiving lunch punctually at 1pm, and a casual football game on the couch before heading home at 7pm, my experiences have usually been a little different. My parents are from Colombia but they moved to the US 35+ years ago, where they slowly adopted the Thanksgiving tradition, mostly through other expats who were figuring it out as they went. While my entire family still lives in Colombia, my other family, my non-blood-related group of family friends who are as good as family are all also foreigners, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela. They raised their kids in the US and got together every year to celebrate this new and foreign holiday, because everyone else was doing it. And as expected, our thanksgivings may taste like your average American meal, but the celebration is far from ordinary. If you’ve ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll have an idea of what Thanksgiving at our house is like. It is loud, it is crowded, everyone is running late, dinner doesn’t start until 9 or 10 pm, and more often than not, the party runs until 2 or 3 in the morning where we digest our food by pushing all the couches out of the way and clearing a path for a dance floor where the salsa music and fancy footwork come out. We usually get the cops called on us by our stiff neighbors every year. When we’ve had American guests join us, they are often a bit confused, a bit overwhelmed, and usually thoroughly entertained. Thanksgiving at our house is a whole lot of chaos and a whole lot of fun.
Another tradition that one of my ‘tias’ started years ago was that during dinner, we all go around the table and express what we are grateful for. As kids, we would roll our eyes at this, often struggling to come up with anything coherent because we were teenagers and usually not grateful for a damn thing. But as we’ve grown older, our hearts have softened, life has happened, we’ve learned that this tradition, while sometimes annoying when you have 50 people to listen to one-by-one, is actually quite special. One of the moms always cries. My dad always talks about his brother, who passed away 12 years ago from leukemia. One of the current generation of teenagers gets super awkward and can’t think of anything even remotely sentimental to say so they half-heartedly say thanks for the food without making any eye contact with anyone. And one by one we go, celebrating the blessings in our life, the lessons we’ve learned, honoring those we’ve lost, and toasting to a bright and fruitful future. Its pretty special.
At the core of this tradition is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (and conversely, why I hate Christmas). Thanksgiving, for the most part, is simply about gratitude. I often say, slightly defiantly, that “every day should be Thanksgiving” and because I’m still a bit of a cynic at times, I feel sad that it is only on one day a year that we truly pause to feel grateful. But what a blessing it is to be able to fill our plates so high and spend a day with the people we love, simply cooking, eating, and being grateful. Its a nearly perfect holiday, where so many others seem to have lost their way. Christmas, once the celebration of the birth of Jesus, has degenerated into long lines in mall parking lots and drained bank accounts and an enormous and unusual amount of pressure to demonstrate love through how much you spend. But Thanksgiving… what is there to hate about food, family, and gratitude?
In theory, nothing at all. It is still my favorite holiday, despite my new perspective. I still love food, family, and gratitude, but my way of expressing and experiencing this holiday has drastically changed in the years since I’ve begun to open myself to truth. I’ve knowingly and willingly lifted the veil on my most precious day and allowed myself to see it with new eyes, even though I really, really did not want to. Thanksgiving has always been perfect to me, and I don’t often get in the spirit of holidays so to have this one day where I allowed myself to be festive was a nearly sacred thing.
In my plant-based-seeking years, (the five or so years before becoming fully vegan when I was veg-curious, on-again-off-again plant based) I always made an exception for Thanksgiving. I remember once about 6 or 7 years ago I told my family for one of the many times that I was going to be vegan, and they gave me that one-raised-eyebrow, “okayyy” sort of look as to suggest a complete lack of confidence in my ability to keep my promise this time. Someone asked me, “Well what are you going to do for Thanksgiving?” and I said, “OK, well, I’m making an exception for that one. I mean, I don’t know how you would be vegan on Thanksgiving anyway so I don’t really have a choice.” And they grinned, perhaps seeing the huge holes in my commitment even before I could. What I realize now was that I actually wasn’t all that invested in “being rigid” (thats what I thought veganism was) and I felt a lot of shame and guilt around not conforming to the traditions and foods that had been and would continue to be prepared for me with love (and some strings attached. i.e. that voice from my childhood that said “No special meals young lady, you better eat what I cook or you don’t eat at all”). There is a lot of guilt attached to food – at least as a Latin woman with a Latin mother who does all the cooking – and on a holiday like Thanksgiving, that guilt is on steroids. The week before Thanksgiving, it begins slowly. The panic sets in at home, the stress starts to rise, and on the day before, I am both entirely needed and thoroughly in the way of all food preparations. I’m panicking to chop enough onions while trying to also remain invisible in the path of cooking madness that is my mother. If I’ve been sent to the store for more ingredients, I’m never home fast enough. And if I’m home, I’m never helping enough. My sister and I have learned to tread lightly on this Thanksgiving eve, nearly mastering the art of pleasing, being helpful, and getting the fuck out of the way. My dad, even more expertly, somehow always has lots of work that day and somehow, too, on Thanksgiving Day, he manages to extend one short trip to buy bottles of prosecco into a day-long outing where he is able to avoid the tornado altogether, showing up exactly as the turkey is being pulled out of the oven. It is masterful work of the highest caliber. I suppose, despite giving my mom so much guff for her Thanksgiving crazy, I have always been amazed at how she pulls it off. Being the host of such a large party every year is no small feat, and one way or another, we always make it happen, food is on the table, and I’ll be damned if her food isn’t the best food I’ve ever had. I also recognize that I will likely transform into exactly her in 20 years when I have annoying children of my own who can’t seem to cut veggies the way I need them to or move away from the oven fast enough before I drop a heavy tray of food. So I give her a free pass. Mom, you rule.
Thanksgiving is a sacred day. Both for my mother, as she furiously and lovingly assembles the most complex meal of the year, and for me, as I get to reap the benefits of her labor. To shun this time-honored tradition and to create my own was, for the majority of my life, unthinkable. As a Latina, you do not, under any circumstances, cross your mother. You just don’t. The power of the Matriarchy in my family and their ability to ruin your life with the most expert guilt I’ve ever seen is unmatched. My grandmother, for all her amazing, loving, sensitive qualities, is a woman to be feared if you ever remotely displease her. My mother learned from the best, and I suppose my sister and I have too. To my future children, I’m sorry in advance. So for years, when I half-heartedly attempted to be vegan, I knew better than to try to “pull any of that shit” on Thanksgiving day. It was simply not the time or place and it never felt worth the risk.
Not to mention, very importantly, that I liked Thanksgiving food just the way it was. Seeing those sweet buttery rolls as one of my tias pulled them out of the oven, or the over-the-top creamy mashed potatoes simmering on the stove, or best of all, my moms milk-egg-butter-filled sweet potato creme brûlée; this was a culinary experience I just did not want to miss out on. Why would I? It’s delicious. I’m not sure about you, but the turkey was generally my least favorite part of the day. Turkey on its own doesn’t taste like much – its all the sauces and stuffing and gravy that we add to it that make it worth eating. And don’t even get me started on stuffing. That carb-y, buttery-sausage-y crunchy soft squishy delight is by far my favorite dish, and the way my mom makes it the best. Even better, we often have two stuffings, one made by my other tia who is a chef and makes hers with chorizo and cornbread. Let that sink in for a minute.
I admit – I had lots of feelings around this food. As you can tell, I still do. One year while I was living in France during the holiday, my local friends and host family celebrated with me three times in one single day because they knew how special it was to me. My host family made me an exquisite meal for lunch, then I left to my French friends house where she researched, shopped, prepared, and lovingly cooked another gorgeous Thanksgiving meal just for me, and the night was capped off at my American friends house where we had a proper American Thanksgiving drunken rager, American flags and all. There is no other meal so emotionally charged or filled with nostalgia as the modern Thanksgiving meal, and for me, like for most people, that nostalgia kept me deeply rooted to tradition and habit for all the years of my life, until last year.
Last Thanksgiving was my first thanksgiving after having fully committed to veganism 9 months earlier. After years of exceptions where my desire to be vegan was mostly rooted in the health benefits (and thus telling myself that one meal won’t make me unhealthy or fat), I finally had seen the light and become fully vegan, this time inspired by my compassion for animals as my main motivator to keep me connected to my highest self. I knew this Thanksgiving would be different because I no longer had any more excuses and would have to face the day head-on, my values and my heart (instead of my vanity) leading the way. I anticipated it all year long, wondering what on earth I would do this time. What would my family say? What would I eat? Would I be tempted by all my favorite dishes that I was now willingly avoiding? It would be the ultimate test of my commitment to my cause, and I feared it might break me.
What I didn’t know all along was how incredibly easy the entire experience actually could be. If I had known that years ago, I probably would have been able to go vegan a lot sooner, but it was fear, anxious anticipation, shame, guilt, and petty cravings that kept me rooted in something I knew was not-so-secretly pretty dark. For all my love and admiration of this so-called ‘perfect’ holiday, I always had this tiny little voice in the back of my head that thought maybe there was something a little off about celebrating our gratitude and blessings by putting a giant dead, charred, anally-stuffed bird in the middle of a beautiful table surrounded by gawking and hungry mouths. I didn’t really get it, but I set the thoughts aside so that I could enjoy my meal. I also always wondered if pilgrims ever actually ate any of these things as they feasted alongside Native Americans, who graciously opened their homes to starved and nearly-dying English refugees. I wondered if they actually ate sweet potato creme brûlée or if maybe they just ate a few flavorless potatoes and dry acorn mash. I also wondered if Native Americans actually feel very grateful on Thanksgiving, given that the people they opened their homes to ended up committing genocide against them and nearly destroying their entire population only a few years after this first meal. I had these thoughts all my life but I knowingly tucked them deeply in a locked box in the back of my mind, (we can call that box ‘Cognitive Dissonance’, if you’d like) and moved on, stuffing my face with mashed potatoes and merrily reflecting on all the things that I, selfishly, was grateful for: Food! Family! Apple Pie! All the things that matter, when you live your life only for yourself.
But one day, I woke up. I decided to open that box and throw it out and allow any consequences become part of my journey. Consequences like… making crescent rolls with Earth Balance instead of dairy butter. Ah the struggles! Veganism is just so hard!
All jokes aside, I was almost stupidly impressed and surprised when last year, my Thanksgiving meal was not only a million times easier to put together and execute within my family context, but it was also equally, if not more delicious than the non-vegan one I had grown accustomed to. I felt almost foolish, but more so I felt giddy with excitement. Vegan Thanksgiving is possible? My family won’t hate me for it? No one actually gives a shit? It can still be delicious? I don’t have to change any item on my plate at all except in a few small easy ways? I still get to eat pie? Why did no one tell me this sooner!?
So to spare you the years of questioning, wondering, fearing, hiding from it, and avoiding the easy, simple, obvious, silly truth, I will share the secret with you today. Vegan Thanksgiving is easy as fuck. And more importantly, delicious as fuck. So if you are even remotely wondering if there is any way to make such a thing possible, let me help you with that: it is. And it rocks.
I’ll get to the fun part in a moment, but let me first explain very briefly why a Vegan Thanksgiving is the best thing ever. Lets focus first on the most obvious victim of this “wholesome” holiday: the turkey. Many of us, myself included for many years, wished to believe that our Thanksgiving Turkey was trotting around a wide green pasture, playing with other turkeys and gobbling happily until a gentle friendly round little farmer in overalls summoned our beloved friend and humanely (and without allowing ourselves to add in too much detail to our story) turned her into an item we could pick up at Whole Foods on Thanksgiving morning. We’re all intelligent adults and we all know this story is flawed, but we choose to believe it anyway, because apparently we are all also insane. I was too, and I was happy to keep it that way thank you very much. But then I learned that turkeys are highly intelligent, sensitive birds who form strong social bonds and are as playful as cats and dogs. Turkeys have a particular gift for spacial recognition, being able to remember maps, landscapes, and complex geographies in great detail. They are also highly protective over the ones they care about and they are able to form deep bonds, something I relate to quite a bit. I also learned that the turkey almost became our national bird thanks to their courage and bravery, but they went for the bald eagle instead. (What if the tables were turned and we served bald eagle for Thanksgiving and printed turkeys on Fourth of July beer koozies instead?) And then I learned that for Thanksgiving alone, we raise, torture, and brutally slaughter around 46 million turkeys in the US every single year. I also learned that the milk and butter we use for those rolls and delicious mashed potatoes came from female cows who were forcibly impregnated, their babies stolen from them, their milk stolen from them for Humans to drink (which makes no sense), their baby (if male) was sent to slaughter to become ‘veal’ and if female, sent to the same fate as her mother, before both eventually becoming ‘spent’ and being sent to the slaughterhouse to become a burger. And then I learned that eggs actually are a chickens menstrual discharge, after having been confined in a cage and forced to peck each other to death and live in their own feces and decaying matter, before menstruating at an abnormally high and dangerous rate (thanks to added hormones), often causing eggs to get blocked in their uterine tract, become infected, and cause the bird to die a very slow and very painful death. I also learned that baby male chicks born in the egg industry are ground up alive, as they serve no purpose, and baby female chicks, like cows, are destined to the same imprisonment and torture as their mother for our desire to eat their female secretions. As a woman, these atrocities towards other females feels particularly heinous. And as a living, sentient being with a vivid comprehension of suffering and pain, and as a pet-owner and animal lover with a vivid comprehension of their suffering and pain, I knew I could no longer be a part of that system. To call it hypocrisy is an understatement. The system, and my participation in it, was outright cruel, insane, and disgusting. Thats not me, so I changed.
So when looking at my favorite meal of the year, I had a choice to make. Turn a blind eye, or make a simple, compassionate decision. I chose the latter, and it was fantastic. It was literally as simple as swapping out chicken stock for vegetable stock, milk for almond or cashew milk, butter for Earth Balance, eggs for flax-egg, chia-egg, or Vegg, and turkey for an insanely delicious Field Roast or Tofurkey holiday roast. I’m not kidding, its that simple. And does it taste any different? No. It tastes better. And knowing that my actions are in alignment with the values of my favorite holiday feels pretty great too. In all the years I sat at my family’s table, expressing my gratitude for this food and this good company, I never wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room: there was one soul at the table who never had the opportunity to express her gratitude, and, too, that she most likely didn’t have much to be grateful for. The irony of this picture is startling to me now, but for years, I chose to ignore it. Shel Silverstein said it best:
So after last years successful first vegan Thanksgiving, I wanted to share not just why this matters, but a few really simple things you can do to veganize your holiday. You don’t even have to be vegan to do any of this – every small action you take has an impact, and, alas, it is only small actions and baby steps that ever did cause change in the world. So for you to have a life-changing, world-changing, enlightened, awakened, and delicious Thanksgiving this year, here are some tips and recipes that I’ve found helpful.
How to Veganize Thankgiving
- If you live anywhere near a Whole Foods, this is your new best friend. Last year, because I was nervous about cooking and interfering with the kitchen space my mom rightfully owned and needed, I chose to minimize my own stress and outsource Thanksgiving cooking to someone else. I ordered the vegan Thanksgiving meal a few days in advance, and on Thanksgiving morning, I went to the store and picked it up. It included the important players, like a delicious field roast, mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy, cranberry sauce, and an apple pie. Your local store may vary but in general if you have a Whole Foods or a health food store like it, let them do the heavy lifting. Its worth it.
- The stuffing: As this was my favorite dish, I knew I had to find a way to convince my mom to let me veganize it. It was already so close that with a few tweaks, it could be compassionate and no one would be the wiser. She agreed, so instead of chicken stock, we used vegetable stock, and instead of meat-sausage, we used my favorite Tofurkey vegan sausage. Everything else was the same, and I’m pleased to report that not only was it just as delicious as before, but as expected, no one noticed.
- Sweet potato creme brûlée: I admit, I got in over my head with this one. I’m not one for fully understanding the intricacies of food science, and never was this more apparent in my clear lack of comprehension about how to make sweet potatoes become fluffy and light with brand new ingredients. Lets just say, my recipe did not work, but before you blame veganism for that, just simply blame me and the fact that I’m a lousy interpretive French pastry chef. Fortunately, I’m still great at making sweet potatoes the normal way, so I made my usual mashed sweet potatoes and was entirely pleased with the result. I even attempted a sugary brûlée crust on top and it was luxurious.
- Bread, almighty bread: Some breads are already vegan so this was pretty easy. But the buttery crescent rolls were just as easily made with your average Pillsbury crescent rolls, which are, in fact, already accidentally vegan.
- Appetizers: Normally in my family we like to fill up on cheese and crackers before ripping our stomachs into pieces with the main meal, so the appetizers are not to be ignored. Fortunately, with the vast selection of artisanal plant-based cheeses in all major grocery stores, I had no trouble with this. I have a few favorite cashew-based cheeses that rivaled the dairy cheeses for even our most snobby of foodies in the family. Living in California, we are surrounded by high cuisine at all times, so the bar for my people is pretty high, and my vegan appetizers were devoured in a hot second, leaving me feeling like I should have saved some aside in a secret location just for myself. Note to self for this year, perhaps.
- Dessert: Again, Whole Foods and all healthy supermarkets will all offer a vegan dessert option, and since dessert is the best part of the meal, I didn’t take this lightly. I came home with pumpkin pie, apple pie, and a berry crumble, as well as coconut-based vanilla ice cream, and I ate so much that I was sick for days. #worthit.
And if you’re not the type to want to buy any part of your meal or if you don’t have the means to do so, fear not! There are some fantastic recipes here that are sure to please even your most picky, head-strong family members. And the good news is, as usual, plants are cheaper than animal products and if you’re on a budget, a vegan Thanksgiving will help save you a lot of money, even if you aren’t vegan at all. A win for everyone!
Lastly, a word about the feelings. I feared I would feel major FOMO (fear of missing out) last year, but honestly, I didn’t. I was so happy with my food that I felt sorry for everyone else and wondered if they were feeling a bit of FOMO about my meal. And more importantly, entering this big day with awareness, compassion, and truth made all my fears feel silly in comparison to the impact I knew I was having by living in alignment with my values. This is what I always come back to. When you are living your truth, all the things that once felt scary and impossible suddenly feel easy, light, and effortless. (I wasn’t salivating at the sight of the turkey or buttery mashed potatoes anymore – thats just not food.) I should have given my family more credit years ago – they are not as resistant to change as I thought they would be. When I approached Thanksgiving as a vegan, my mom didn’t bat an eye. Feeding myself was my problem, not hers, and she was more than happy to collaborate on a few things that would neither impact her nor our guests but would make her daughter happy (like veganizing the stuffing). My family friends may have made a few of the same, tired jokes about not eating meat, but I’m used to that by now, and I just brush it off while taking a big, hearty bite of Field Roast and I smile to myself knowing I’m doing the right thing.
Thanksgiving as a Vegan feels good. It is still hard, seeing all the people you love and admire eat a poor, innocent, dead animal, blindly and savagely. You wonder how people so intelligent and loving and generous can also be so cruel, and it hurts your heart a little (or a lot). But then you remember that you were once savagely picking at the body of a dead animal, mouth salivating, heart racing, taste buds tingling, and you remember to look at your loved ones with the same compassion that you look at the turkey with. I admit, animals are easier to feel compassionate towards than humans. But when you remember where you came from its easier to remember that everyone is on a journey, and while you can’t expect people to change, you can live joyfully in your truth and sleep soundly knowing you’re doing your best. The great news about that is that if you are joyful and compassionate and strong in your beliefs, others might just be inclined to follow in your steps. So lead with love and love will follow.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!