Vegetarian Thanksgiving (in the South)

This post will not include recipes; it’s more about coping. However, awhile back, I posted a recipe for vegetarian dressing (not stuffing) that is the heart of our vegetarian Thanksgiving tradition. Kim and I have been veggie since before we met. In the beginning, we sometimes made an exception for a slice of turkey at Thanksgiving, but once Aidan came along, we got serious. Back then, we broke down for a little fish now and then, esp. if we went out to eat in the South. Nowadays, most restaurants have something we can eat, and we know enough good places to go where we actually have options. So we can afford to be strict vegetarian (ova-lacto, though, not vegan) and we actually prefer it that way. Holidays can be a challenge, but fortunately our families have learned to cope. No one bats an eye anymore when we pass up the platter of factory-fed poultry. And we have more than enough good food, believe me!

In the South, turkey on Thanksgiving may be traditional, but it’s only one of many dishes. What we don’t want to do with out completely is the traditional feel, so we usually make our veggie dressing for ourselves. Everyone else eats the normal kind, but occasionally they’ve tried ours and been surprised. There’s always sweet potatoes, field peas (similar to black-eyed peas, if you’re not from the South), lima beans, corn (creamed or steamed), mac and cheese, collards or mustard or both, and maybe green beans.

We pass on the congealed salad, since Jello contains gelatin, and we have plenty of bread: corn bread or rolls to choose from. We do make cranberries, and there are other salads we can eat. And then there are the desserts! Pecan pie is a must, though there’s usually a cake or two, and one or two other desserts. It’s a good thing there’s a big family to help take care of it all (and take home leftovers)!

The trick to sharing Thanksgiving with family if you’re vegetarian is to take charge of a few things for yourself. We tend to make the dressing and the cranberries at least. Long ago we convinced Kim’s mother not to use fatback in the greens or bacon in the green beans. So all of the vegetables are fair game for us. Once the family gets used to the fact that you skip one platter, they’re no longer offended, and there’ll be plenty of food. If you’re worried about protein (and why bother), then contribute a plate of deviled eggs. Or add a slice or two of cheese. If you’re vegan and/or you want to go for a tofu turkey instead, that’s up to you, but we’ve never seen the need to get that elaborate.

If this is your first Vegetarian Thanksgiving, be good to yourself. If you want to stand up for your principles it will be easy enough to do, and you won’t go away hungry. But if you want to be polite and take a small slice of the bird (or if you just can’t resist), don’t sweat it. You can chalk it up to easing your family into your new veggie lifestyle. And I bet it won’t be long before they don’t bat an eye or you won’t be tempted.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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