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No Bones About It

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Vegans go cold turkey on the meat at Thanksgiving

By David Templeton

ON THANKSGIVING MORNING, weeks after her preparations first began, Juliet Jackson will rise early, light the oven in her rustic ranch-house kitchen, and begin an energetic homestretch sprint toward the annual holiday dinner. But with a twist.

A small mountain of broken cornbread biscuits, made a week ahead, will be taken from the freezer and mixed together with walnuts, pine nuts, and some seasonal berries. The potatoes, the gravy, the cranberries, and the pumpkin pie will all receive their finishing touches as her family gathers about the table in eager anticipation of a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Traditions, however, shift from family to family. And one of the Jackson's dearest traditions--one that may come as something of a shock to many salivating celebrators of Turkey Day--is that on this table there will be no turkey.

"I haven't done Thanksgiving with a turkey for all of my adult life," Jackson affirms. "We don't want it. And we certainly don't miss it."

To a wide slice of the nation's populace, the very notion of a meatless Thanksgiving might seem strange and jarring and a little bit sad. After all, Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey--an enormous, juicy, piping-hot, sage-seasoned, cornbread-stuffed, golden brown Meleagris gallopavo, brought to the table with a fanfare of "oohs" and "ahhs," subdivided into preferences of white or dark meat, and served beneath spoonfuls of gravy and heaps of stuffing. Now that's a Thanksgiving dinner, right?

Not necessarily.

A growing number of vegetarians and vegans (the former will indulge in dairy products and the occasional egg, while the latter touch neither flesh nor fowl nor the by-products thereof) are boldly redefining the very meaning of Thanksgiving, claiming a keener affinity with the true meaning of the holiday, much the same way that they have redesigned their own diets to reflect a cleaner, more natural lifestyle.

Every reason you can think of sounds good to me," Jackson says of her choice, made 30 years ago, to go meatless. "Health is probably the predominant reason. I've raised three children as vegetarians. They've all stayed eating this way."

The former owner of a vegetarian cafe in Sebastopol and a health food store in North Carolina, Jackson makes no attempt to replace the absent bird in her Thanksgiving dinners, relying instead on the traditional side dishes, "most of which are vegan to begin with." With only minor adjustments here and there--soymilk in the mashed potatoes and an organic non-dairy creamer in the pumpkin pie--Jackson has developed a holiday spread that looks pretty much like everyone else's, while accentuating her philosophy of culinary ethics and healthful living.

"Thanksgiving is not about turkeys," she says. "It's about giving the best you have to give, and being truly thankful for the good things around us. All of that is heightened, I think, by the way my family chooses to live and eat."

GREG SCHMITZ AGREES. As deli manager at the Food for Thought natural-foods grocery store in Sebastopol, Schmitz caters to a savvy clientele who demand innovation in their meatless dishes, and who look to him for unusual Thanksgiving ideas.

"No vegan must ever go hungry on Thanksgiving," he laughs, "and the best food to put on the table is the food that is growing right now. As for the 'turkey thing,' I've found that, in general, most people don't really care about the turkey anyway. Traditionally, they may have a slice, but what they really want is the pumpkin pie or some of Aunt Vida's famous casserole.

"With that in mind, I pay special attention to my side dishes," he says, pointing out a popular raw cranberry sauce with grapes and oranges. He also suggests such intriguing fare as sweet potatoes with chipolte peppers, mashed potatoes with leeks, a watercress salad, bean soup, and cornmeal pones, a dish he plans to serve for his own friends as part of the Native American theme he's developed for this year.

"I like Thanksgiving to be a spiritual event," he says. "I want us to think about what the day means and how it connects us to our Native American brothers and sisters. Thanksgiving, in general, is far more meaningful to me today that it ever was before."

Some vegans, however, will admit that Thanksgiving for vegans can be complicated, even infuriating, especially at family gatherings where everyone keeps passing them the turkey plate. Celebrated vegetarian chef Molly Katzen, author of the Moosewood series of cookbooks, comments in her best-selling cookbook Still Life with Menu that "turkey, on Thanksgiving, is often the hardest meat for new vegetarians to give up."

Kate LeTourneaux-Platt, a Santa Rosa nutritionist and private chef, agrees. "Along with the absence of the meat, there's the context in which you hold your memories of eating that turkey," she says, "of going home for the holidays, whom you sat next to, who helped you carve the turkey the first time. There is so much emotion that goes into our food, at holidays in particular. Thanksgiving can be extremely uncomfortable."

But, as a strict vegan who gave up meat 12 years ago, Le Tourneaux-Platt observes, "I don't even associate Thanksgiving with turkey anymore. I associate it with autumn, with what is available seasonally."

And then there are those who have given up meat for ethical reasons, considering it especially difficult to sit idly by on this day that some consider an annual turkey holocaust. "I know some vegetarians who won't show up for dinner if they know a turkey will be on the table," says Schmitz.

"Rule No. 1: 'Don't trip on the turkey,'" offers organic chef Marguerite Gabe of Sundance Catering in Sebastopol. "I mean, there is so much good food to eat, who really needs the bird?" As examples, she cites the Cajun-themed menu she's planned for this year, with Tempeh Jambalaya, mashed potatoes with rutabaga, and her specialty: baked orange cups stuffed with yams and honey, topped with pecans.

"Thanksgiving is about friends," she adds. "And you don't serve your friends junk, right?"

I LOVE THANKSGIVING," Bonnie Macias says dreamily. Now working as an accountant, Macias is a former cafe owner who is "between restaurants." A dedicated vegetarian, she claims Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday. "It's a beautiful tradition. It's about bringing out the best you have to offer, your special dishes, your best foods. It's about remembering the best things in life, being thankful for that."

Macias' specialty is a baked pumpkin stuffed with a mixture of wild rice, cranberries, and nuts. She may also whip up her signature cranberry chutney or roasted garlic mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy. And how has she adjusted to Thanksgiving without the turkey?

"What turkey?" she laughs.

Bethany Barsman, owner of Out to Lunch Catering in Petaluma, has carved a niche making healthful vegetarian dishes. "What's really big for Thanksgiving," she says, "is potato and vegetable pot pies. They're festive, and hearty, and they look beautiful on the table. The thing about Thanksgiving without the tradition of the turkey is that people change. You can incorporate healthy changes into your holiday rituals. So you lose the turkey. You have new traditions.

"Either way," she adds with a laugh, "you still spend your whole day in the kitchen, cooking."


A vegan Thanksgiving potluck, hosted by Jules Michael, will be held from noon to 4 p.m., Nov. 28, in Guerneville at 16363 Wright Drive (cross streets are Drake Road and Hwy. 116). Bring a holiday dish to share. For more details, call 869-0603.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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