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Happy New Year From Death Row: Here's someone who hopes you'll give this article some serious thought.

Peace and Goodwill to All

Looking back on the holidays, and carving out space for meat-free eating

By Elisa Camahort

In the years that I've been a vegetarian, I've been to many, many meaty Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. And, yes, I confess that sometimes it's tough. Even pre-veggie, I rarely ate turkey, other than on those holiday dinner nights. Even so, when those nights roll around, the turkey tempts me. What is that? Nutritional nostalgia, I guess.

In the early years, my mom and I both fell into this "Must Have Main Dish" mentality. Other cultures eat a series of small or side dishes: tapas, kimchee, dim sum. There's no equivalent here. We are definitely an appetizer-entree-dessert kind of country.

Usually my mom would go all out on some vegetarian main dish: a casserole, a stew, a pasta dish ... something hearty, something veggie ... and something I felt obligated to make a major dent in, especially if no one else was.

It took years for me to convince my mom that I would not starve or feel deprived if left to my devices with all of the normal side dishes at a holiday meals. We're talking sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberries, salad, bread, corn, maybe even another cooked vegetable. Not to mention the absolute necessity to save room for dessert.

I'm sure you see what I mean: big, full meal without a main dish.

Actually, I'm often happier in a restaurant if I approach my meal with the same philosophy. Am I unhappy to chow down on a beet salad, and sides of spinach, Brussels sprouts and/or mashed potatoes? Not unhappy at all, thank you.

Sometimes I do feel like dispelling the pitying attitudes of my holiday dining companions. You can only hear so many jokes about tofurkey. So every now and then I bring a delicious recipe for vegan Tofu Pot Pie, gotten long ago from PETA. (They're not just about naked models, people!)

It's got gravy made with nutritional yeast; it's got a homemade crust; it's got the corn and peas we all remember lovingly from Swanson's. It's hearty, savory and filling.

But it's got no meat at all. And that makes the holiday season that much more full of thanks, peace and goodwill in my book.

A New Year's Wish

One Christmas night, as the Significant Other and I were leaving my mom's after another gluttonous holiday meal, we got an urgent phone call. My sister's teenage cat-sitter frantically reported that one of my sister's cats, Poseidon, was hiding under the Christmas tree, unresponsive and uninterested in dinner: a sure sign of something seriously wrong.

The SO and I volunteered to rush over there and take Poseidon to an animal hopital open 24/7/365. It was clear Poseidon's condition was very bad, and while they didn't know if it was due to poison, a fall or a kick, Poseidon was bleeding internally like there was no tomorrow.

While we anxiously waited at the hospital, a man came in with a puppy, probably a lab mix, that had been the victim of a hit-and-run outside his house. The puppy wasn't too seriously hurt, but he was crying in a particularly pathetic way. The driver of the car may have run away, but this guy stepped up. He said he would pay the bills, and if no owner was located, he would keep the puppy.

There we were spending Christmas night in a way I'm sure none of us expected to (or in the case of the hospital workers, hoped to), caring for injured animals that needed help.

Yet the cat-sitter didn't think twice about taking the time to call about Poseidon and then wait for us to get there. The SO and I didn't think twice about rushing to get him. The man didn't think twice about saving that puppy. And the hospital workers didn't think twice about giving up their holiday evening to help animals that ended up there.

In the end, the puppy only had an injured paw, and Poseidon pulled through. But how many of the kind people who made that happen went home and didn't think twice about eating a cow or chicken or lamb? I don't like to put people on the spot, but I don't get how we've learned to segment animals we rush to save from animals we rush to eat at the end of a long night.

If you've ever saved a stray or shelled out major dinero for veterinarian bills or thought about both human and pet victims of natural disasters, then perhaps this year you can think about resolving to spread the love just a little more broadly around the animal kingdom. Just my New Year's wish.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 5, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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