The Vegetarian Roll: A Love and Hate Relationship with Thanksgiving

27 11 2013

Ah, Family: a Love and Hate Relationship
Basket of fruits and vegetablesEvery year, around this time, I reflect on what it is to be a vegetarian in America. I have my own pleasant and tortuous memories of family feasts, where I was accused of not having a thick enough skin to ignore the taunting. It’s supposed to be a time of gratitude, when friends and family gather to celebrate the cornucopia that nature has belssed them with that harvest season. Our family meals were an extensive spread of wonderful foods, many of which were kindly altered to make them an option for ‘the vegetarian.’ In more recent years, as I have learned to cook elaborate dishes, my own uncles have admitted that “that tofu was pretty darn good” and gone back for seconds. A huge victory for me, and others who have lived through this experience.turkey cartoon

There were usually 20-25 of us sitting down together at various impromptu tables at a given holiday. About half of those were my cousins, mostly younger boys. For about 15 years, no Thanksgiving was complete until one of the boys grabbed his slice of turkey with two hands, and pried the slice apart, mocking the motion of a beak, while making “Gobble! Gobble!” turkey sounds in my direction. The others would laugh, or at least smile, at the ingenious humor and wit, which they had completely forgotten about in the 365 days that had passed since the last ritualistic display.

I had learned by age 13 to just ignore them, as it only egged them on to get a reaction from me. Still, this didn’t exactly make me feel embraced in our family. This did not stop until one year, when I was 26 years old, and I finally erupted. I declared that this was rude, inconsiderate, and childish behavior and I was sick of it. I left the room and did not return. The “Gobble, gobble” noises have since not returned either. The holidays have been vastly improved ever since.thanksgiving cartoon

Who Are ’The Vegetarians’?

a_vegetarian_thanksgiving_menuThe holidays are probably the hardest part about being vegetarian, depending on your family, but by no means is this the only day of the year where we feel different. There are plenty of other challenges to being in this ‘other’ category for something that is such an integral part of daily life. In the 1970s, approximately 1% of the population in the U.S. was living on a plant-based diet, sometimes including animal by-products like milk and cheese. Today, self-reported vegetarianism is between 10-13% of our population, with more and more people switching their diets for health or sustainability reasons. (For a country by country breakdown of vegetarianism, see

The definition of ‘vegetarian’ is also not consistent. When I first became one at age 11, I began feverishly researching and writing a research paper on the topic to learn more. This was back in the ‘dark ages’- pre-internet. I discovered that, at that time, there were as many as 7 major categories of vegetarianism. You could be a pescetarian (eat fish but not other animals), you could be a lacto-ovo vegetarian (most common, eating eggs, cheese, milk, but no other animal-based foods), or, the most extreme type, vegan (eating only 100% plant-based foods). So when you ask, “Is the soup vegetarian?” in a restaurant, it must be followed by a dreaded onslaught of follow up questions. “Is there fish? Chicken broth? Bacon bits? Cream?” By any definition, being vegetarian means you are a minority.

Travel Much?

When we travel, we all enjoy the tasty, unsual flavors of exploring another culture’s food. As a vegetarian, you always have to take extra steps to plan ahead to ensure that you will find sustenance along your travels. I always learn enough of the local language to be able to ask for vegetarian food. This sometimes means spelling it out, “No meat, no fish, plants only, please,” since some cultures don’t really have a word for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan.’

india veg mcdDepending on where you go, it can be hard or it can be easy. In Europe, there is a lot more education and awareness, and therefore sensitivity to diet needs, despite the relatively low percentage of vegetarians who live there (typically less than 5%). In Germany you have to politely ask for dishes “ohne Speck” or without bacon crumbles, since they view this as ‘other’ and not really meat. In Thailand everything comes with fish sauce, and it can be a struggle to get a truly vegetarian meal unless you are pescetarian. This is in contrast to countries like India, where various sources estimate that 20-40% of the population is vegetarian, and the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to be veg. There is a country-wide mandated identification of non-vegetarian items, noted with a red dot. Even chains like McDonald’s are jumping on the bandwagon in India.

What’s ‘God’ (Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Nature, etc.) Got To Do With It?

bibleAs we quickly learned from our Thai exchange son, diet does not always align with religion either, as we sometimes have been led to believe in overly simplified stereotypes. I always thought that all Buddhism, like Hinduism, was aligned with the belief that we should not take other lives. However, in Thailand, Buddhist monks must accept whatever food is given to them, including animal meat (usually fish). Our Thai son told us that, “Buddha give us fish so we can eat them,” which was a very different interpretation than what we have seen in most American Buddhist traditions.

There are also interesting twists in religion where the faithful have chosen over time to ignore some pieces of scripture, while embracing conflicting quotes. For example, the bible warns Christians not to eat animals at all in some passages, while giving a specific list of approved animals in others.

  • “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21)
  • “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.” (Leviticus 19:26)
  • “Thou shalt not eat animals that ..walk on paws… or unsplit hooves.” (

book of mormonSimilarly, the Book of Mormon states that “Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 89:12-13) Despite this relatively recent (and therefore less diluted by interpretation) religion, many followers do not follow this religious scripture on diet.

With so many interpretations, innumerable sects of religions, cultural norms, and geographical reliance on local food, who is to say what is truly the ‘right’ answer? You will never hear me telling someone that they are wrong for eating animals, although I have a long list of reasons why I choose not to. I am happy to share my reasons with those who want to know, but, as with religion, I do not think it is right to force my beliefs onto others. We each have to find our own path to happiness, and no two paths will be the same.

Who Cares, Let’s EAT!

So, wherever you are this week, whatever you choose to eat way too much of, remember that there is a vast and varied world out there, and you are simply enjoying one tiny slice of the ‘pie.’ Our cultures and traditions are no more right or less wrong than anyone elses, and nobody should be made to feel different or lesser because of what they choose to eat.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!The-Last-Thanksgiving


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