So you’ve realized there’s no good reason to bother any turkeys, in order to enjoy a day of abundance and thanks. Wonderful! Now let’s get down to business: celebrating Thanksgiving vegan-style, in our meat-soaked food culture, can pose special challenges. Maybe it’s your first Unturkey Day since going vegan, and you’re wondering what to serve. Perhaps you’re traveling to visit non-veg relatives, or hosting omni guests. Social pressure to conform to others’ visions of ‘tradition‘ can be daunting, especially coming from family members or close friends. Not to worry! With a bit of planning and forethought, there’s no reason for your vegan Thanksgiving to be anything other than joyful and delicious.
First Things First: the Food!
In launching a first-ever turkey-free Thanksgiving, new veggie cooks sometimes feel daunted by ‘what to do instead.’ The first thing to remember is that you don’t have to do anything ‘instead!’ We’re conditioned to expect one big centerpiece dish — and that’s fine, if you want to make one! — but it’s completely optional. You can create a delicious smorgasboard without a Be All End All One Big Thing at the middle of the table: imagine a buffet of all your favorite foods… then create it!
There’s no rule saying you can’t have a less formal ‘tapas-syle’ feast, or make a meal of what are usually called side dishes. That said, though, many folks do prefer to see a lovely ‘ooh-ah’ dish play a starring role in the meal — especially if you’re newly vegan, or cooking for omnis, this theme feels more ‘traditional’ and pleasantly familiar.
Many dishes we’ve learned to associate with Thanksgiving are easy to veganize, just by substituting vegan butter, Earth Balance, or refined coconut oil for dairy-based butter — I like avoiding palm oil, so tend to use coconut oil. Like butter or margarine, it’s solid at room temperature; and the refined version offers a neutral rather than coconutty flavor.
Cashew cream tops desserts as lusciously as dairy-based whipped cream, and soy or almond milk fills the same role in recipes as dairy milk. Type ‘vegan recipe [whatever dish]’ into any search engine, and you’ll find a million ways to prepare delicious green bean casseroles, sweet potatoes, stuffings, pies, and any other holiday dishes you like, without the animal junk.
Cashew gravy comes together quickly and tastes indulgently rich — this recipe, with freshly ground black pepper and about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of poultry seasoning added, competes with any nonvegan gravy in terms of sheer deliciousness! I like to pre-mix the ingredients for a double-batch the night before, and finish it on the stovetop right before feast time.
For stuffing I like to make vegan cornbread, cube it, then let it sit out for a couple hours to dry slightly; toss with a handful of dried cranberries, about 1/2 cup chopped pecans, one peeled and diced apple, and sauteed chopped celery and onion. Make it a heartier main dish by tossing in some cubed vegan sausage or field roast. Moisten with a little gravy (or premixed/ uncooked gravy), cover, and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees; remove the cover and bake another 10 minutes, then serve with the rest of the gravy on the side.
If you do want a big pretty centerpiece dish, all of these also work beautifully for Thanksgiving feasting:
- Unturkey Roast, surrounded by cornbread stuffing (as above) — make the roast a day ahead, then slice and bake with the stuffing and gravy.
- Sunday Dinner Roast and Roots, made with ‘no-chicken’ vegan bouillon, a dollop of extra-virgin olive oil, and a splash of white wine instead of the broth recipe given.
- Cranberry Wild Rice Casserole
- Elegantly Simple Stuffed Bell Peppers
- Harvest-Stuffed Acorn Squash
Roasted Brussels sprouts and fresh bread make delicious additions to your holiday table.
Recipe: Maple-Balsamic Roasted Sprouts
- 1 lb fresh Brussels sprouts
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2-1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2-1/2 tablespoons real maple syrup (NOT maple-flavored pancake syrup)
- salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Trim sprouts, and cut in half or (for larger ones) quarters. Toss with oil and balsamic vinegar, spread in a single layer on well-oiled cookie sheet, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once, until edges of sprouts are just starting to brown. If you’re making this dish ahead of time, stop here. Let cool completely at room temperature, then store in fridge until about 30 minutes before mealtime.
Toss sprouts with maple syrup, and roast another 15-20 minutes at 425 degrees (longer if they were refrigerated between steps), until the syrup carmelizes a bit and the sprouts are well browned. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and then try not to eat them all between oven and table!
Find other excellent menu ideas here, including:
- Fluffy Mashed Potatoes with Savory Mushroom Gravy
- Warm Cabbage Apple Slaw
- Nutty Curry-Stuffed Squash
- Pumpkin Spice Rice Pudding
Now that we’ve taken care of the menu, let’s consider some other vegan Thanksgiving issues that are likely to arise: namely, the people problem.
Dealing with People Who Want You to Eat Birds
Despite the fact that historically turkeys have virtually nothing to do with what we call the ‘first Thanksgiving’ in 1621, your omni friends and family members have likely embraced their cultural indoctrination on the subject fully and unquestioningly. When they realize you plan to celebrate a day of thanks and plenty without a dead turkey on your table — or without partaking of the one upon theirs — they will probably look at you as if you’ve sprouted a second head.
Take deep breaths, and remind yourself of the virtues of patience and compassion. Then use these ideas to pave the way for a joyful, peaceful, and compassionate holiday celebration.
If you’re going to family members’ homes for Thanksgiving — whatever the host says — TAKE FOOD. Crock pot soups, stews, and casseroles, along with pre-made chilled dishes like dips, pasta salads, potato salads, or green salads can be lifesavers.
Massaged kale salads can be made ahead, and are sturdy enough to travel well without wilting. Tapenade and bruschetta also travel well, and the bread can be easily refreshed in the oven 5 minutes before serving time. Cashew cream cheese topped with raspberry-jalapeno jam (or any berry jam, if you don’t like a spicy kick), served with crackers, is incredibly luscious and easy to take along — just tote the ingredients separately, and top the cream cheese with the jam right before serving for the prettiest presentation. Chilled desserts like pumpkin, sweet potato, or chocolate-peanut butter pies are also easy to make ahead — they travel well, too, and show off how luscious vegan cooking can be.
Even with the most well-meaning host in the world, unless you know they’ve had prior experience with vegan cooking and eating, you leave yourself open to a frustrating and awkward meal of just cranberry sauce if you don’t take a few things that definitely don’t contain animal ingredients. Cranberry sauce is delicious! But as a whole meal, it’s decidedly lacking. Take food!
Communicate in a friendly and open way with your hosts or guests, about your food habits. The fact that you’re vegan shouldn’t come as a shock to your hosts (or guests!), as you all sit down to eat. Ask what sides you can bring — then veganize ’em. I never expect a host or hostess to go out of their way on my behalf, but if they ask how to veganize something I’m delighted to talk about it! Some easy strategies include substituting Earth Balance or refined coconut oil for butter, soy milk for almond milk, veggie broth for chicken or turkey broth in stuffing, or nonvegan toppings on the side instead of on the dish — for example, whole roasted sweet potatoes can be served with the butter and brown sugar on the side, instead of all of it cooked together in a casserole. I generally don’t voice these options unless the host specifically asks, but that’s your call. Whether such ideas will be well received depends on the relationships and personalities of the people involved; but many Thanksgiving dishes are insanely easy to veganize!
If you’re hosting omni guests, you can use one of two strategies: invite them to bring something they do like, if they don’t prefer what you’re making; or (my favorite!) ask everyone to bring vegan food. Supply recipes (and perhaps ingredients) as needed, if they’re unfamiliar with vegan cooking.
During holiday dinners with omni friends and family, especially if you’re newly vegan, someone is almost certain to question, deride, or otherwise offer negative comments about your weird non-dead-bird-eating ways. Deep breaths! It’s not the time: don’t allow yourself to be goaded into going into all the whys and wherefores of vegan eating, in this situation — it will only fill your day with conflict.
At such events, if questioned I like to say something like, ‘It just makes sense to me on every level, and I really love eating this way’… or… ”Well it makes me happy, so I do it.’ Seriously: who can argue with that?! Apologize for nothing, but don’t rise to the bait, and gently but firmly deflect the conversation towards other topics. I love vegan advocacy, but at holidays widely believed to revolve around meat consumption, 9 times out of 10 nothing good will come from getting drawn into a discussion about the ethics of eating animals. Odds are good that no matter what you say or don’t say — just by being ‘the vegan in the room’ — often you’ll prompt uncomfortable self-reflection among some turkey-eaters. That can trigger a defensive emotional response, which turns out to be unconducive to the meaningful exchange of ideas. Don’t fall for it!
If pressed, you can say something like, ‘There are so many reasons to eat vegan, it’s hard to quickly summarize… Once I get going, it may take a while! Why don’t we talk about it later, after everyone’s had time to catch up on everything else? By the way, how’s work going — are you liking that new job?’ … or… ‘Believe me, I LOVE to talk about this stuff! But I don’t want it to take over the day. Why don’t we talk about it after dinner? … Now tell me, what’s in this punch? Because it’s really delicious!’ Then, after dinner, when it’s late enough that you can leave whenever you want: GAME ON!
If you’re hosting other vegan cooks, in your own home, then disregard all of the above advice and enjoy your day: you have my envy, you lucky so-and-so’s!
Whatever your Thanksgiving plans, with a bit of forethought (and deep breaths as needed!) it’s easy to revel in an indulgently delicious feast — with no deceased turkeys anywhere near your plate, and with only joy, peace, and compassion to fill your day.
Image credits: Page 1, images by the author; page 2, Creative Commons photo by Dinner Series.