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November 30-December 7, 2005

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Holiday Dinner

Gobble Heads: Holiday traditionalists pray that no vegetarians will come knocking.

Season's Greening

Tips on surviving the holiday season for vegetarians and those who host them

By Elisa Camahort

The season is very much upon us: The season of travel, eating out, big family dinners, company functions and a hundred other opportunities for vegetarians to see mountains of food—but often very little they can put on their plate. Consider this column my Dear Abby advice column, both for vegetarians and for people who might host vegetarians.

Let's start with travel, specifically air travel. The advice is simple: BYO—everything. The airlines are certainly making it simple for us. Most airlines no longer feed us, even on cross-country trips. But let's face it: even when you pre-ordered that vegetarian entree in the glory days of yore, the meal wouldn't end up being available something like 30 percent of the time. And all the low-blood-sugar arguing in the world couldn't make it appear at 30,000 feet! So bring your supplies. And get to know your airports. Some air terminals are veritable cornucopias of food choices. The JetBlue terminal at JFK will satisfy any possible hankering you may have (albeit at airline terminal prices). Meanwhile, Terminal C at SJC? Wasteland. If you don't feel like something from Starbucks or Noah's, you are out of luck.

What about catered functions? Whether business or personal, buffet or sit-down, you'll probably find yourself eating in a crowd of people this season. It would be nice if invitations and registrations asked you about food requirements, but they often don't. Proactivity always gets the best results. Call the venue and give them the heads-up that a vegetarian will be in the house. Let's say you forget to do that: are you stuck eating around a hunk of meat? Absolutely not. I have never notified a waiter or banquet manager that I was vegetarian and had them refuse to accommodate me, even if they had no heads-up whatsoever. Often you'll make your table mates jealous when a made-to-order (read: fresh) plate shows up.

You might have to wait, and yes, at times I have felt the wait was unacceptably long, but if they've got pasta and vegetables in the kitchen they can make you a fine dish out of what's right there on hand. Just ask. I repeat, you must ask!

Eating at someone's home can be a little touchy. I won't deny there are people who cook a meal and take it personally if you won't eat part of it. Again, giving the heads up to a host who may not know your eating habits is a good idea. Asking if you can bring something helps soften the blow if they can't imagine a meal that isn't meat-and-potatoes-oriented. I personally would never eat meat just to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Some people feel pressured into it. Everybody has their own limits.

But that brings us to you, the nonvegetarian hosting a meal this season. How can you show your vegetarian guests that you care? A host can certainly bear in mind that there are a number of ingredients that turn out to be, surprisingly, nonvegetarian, such as:

Marshmallows (made with gelatin)
Light yogurt (made with gelatin)
Worcestershire sauce (made with anchovies)
Caesar salad dressing (made with anchovies)
Asian oyster sauce
Honey (nonvegan)

If you're feeling really accommodating you can even buy cheese made without rennet (a slaughterhouse byproduct) for your lacto-ovo vegetarian friends (usually only available at Whole Foods or other similar markets).

Let's say you're not Martha Stewart throwing a party. It's OK. Feeding a vegetarian doesn't have to include cooking them a separate dish. I went to a dinner party last month and realized I had forgotten to tell the hostess I was a veggie. "That's OK," she said, "I always assume there will be one." And she pulled out a little tray of prepared veggie sushi rolls from the supermarket, complete with soy sauce and wasabi. So I had a fine meal of her side dishes and the vegetarian sushi. All I could think was how thoughtful she was. Your mother was right: it is the thought that counts—not the number of minutes spent slaving over a hot stove.

With a healthy mix of proactivity and flexibility, vegetarians and their hosts can make it through this busy eating season with principles and friendships intact.


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