Pity the poor vegetarian or vegan at the Thanksgiving table. Many carnivore hosts, secretly or not, view the noncarnivorous guest as a trouble-making rabble-rouser whose sole intention is to make them feel guilty for their turkey-loving repast. Even if the vegetarian asks the host not to go to any trouble and make an extra dish -- "no really, you don't have to open that can of SpaghettiOs, I'll be fine with these lovely radishes" -- the carnivore cook often feels as if he must provide a special dish for his non-turkey-eating guest.
And when vegetarians try to go undercover, they're about as obvious as razor stubble on a drag queen. Someone -- either a loud-mouthed little kid or a drunken cousin twice removed -- will notice that the turkey platter and the giblet gravy has passed untouched by their plate. And then they will scream it: "What ... you're not eating any TURKEY?!!" After that, the gig is up. The room falls silent. Then the host says it. "Oh, I didn't know you were a VEGETARIAN."
But there are alternatives to this annual nightmare. Many vegetarians who are tired of being objects of curiosity and scorn have opted to host Thanksgiving at home, minus the gobbler, of course. Unsurprisingly, cooking classes have emerged to serve this growing constituency. There were about twenty would-be-vegetarian cooks at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland on November 15 for "Thanksgiving for the Birds," which was sponsored by Compassionate Cooks, an organization dedicated to educating people about plant-based eating alternatives. And just as at any cooking class, there were two basic types of people in attendance: the sufferable and the insufferable.
As soon as everyone was assembled and seated on folding chairs, instructor Colleen Patrick-Goodreau asked us to introduce ourselves. Most of the bios went something like this: "Hi, my name is Ernie. I found out about the class from Craigslist and I've been a vegetarian/vegan for about blah blah blah years," or "Hi, I'm a marketing director for Soy-Scrumptious Salad Dressing. Ask me anything you want about our line of vegan salad dressing!"
Most of the nonsalesmen were either vegans or vegetarians who wanted to expand their repertoire of recipes. But there were a few actual carnivores, including a boyfriend dragged there by his girlfriend and a woman invited to a vegan Thanksgiving who was flummoxed about what to bring. Many people mentioned their compassion for animals as being a catalyst in changing their eating habits, and so the class talked a bit about the horrible and barbaric ways Thanksgiving turkeys are treated. According to Farm Sanctuary, the New York-based program that allows people to adopt a turkey instead of eating one, as many as three hundred million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the United States, and they're not treated very nicely. "The last thing I would want is to be killed in a really horrific way," shuddered Lori, the assistant. Pretty much everyone agreed.
Patrick-Goodreau then changed the subject and started out on the Harvest Stuffed Acorn Squash -- one of five dishes she would be demonstrating, along with Spicy Pumpkin Soup, Sensational Stuffing, Golden Gravy, and Cranberry Apple Crisp. She held up a very large acorn squash for everyone to see. "Look at this thing!" she exclaimed. The certified organic green-and-golden-striped vegetable was indeed a large specimen, and we were duly impressed. The recipe for the acorn squash included such traditional Thanksgiving herbs as sage, rosemary, and thyme (sorry, no parsley). The onions and celery that had already been chopped prior to the class were sautéed with the herbs and the kitchen took on the familiar earthy smell of Thanksgiving. Soothed by the familiar aroma, the class chattered on about how good it smelled. But soon the friendly talk was interrupted.
"What kind of bread did you use for the stuffing?" asked a latecomer in an accusatory nasal East Coast accent. Patrick-Goodreau explained that she had used an Italian Pugliese, traditional country bread made from white flour.
"Oh, you mean it's made out of wheat?" the newcomer asked incredulously.
"Yes, but you can use any kind of bread you want," Patrick-Goodreau said from the kitchen.
"Oh, I never would have used wheat!" Most Sanctimonious Vegan (probably not her real name) exclaimed.
The brave teacher, hardly flustered, ignored this rudeness and continued the demonstration. Things went smoothly until the next question, which came a whole two seconds later.
"I'm sautéing the onions in Earth Balance; it's a great butter substitute that you can find at Trader Joe's," Patrick-Goodreau said.
"But if you sauté in an oil, aren't you sacrificing the flavor of the onions?" asked a man who had mentioned that he had just arrived from Singapore two hours earlier. The class seemed both impressed and worried about this bit of information: Why would someone attend a cooking class after a twelve-hour flight instead of going to bed like any normal person?
"Well, not a lot, I don't think," Patrick-Goodreau said.
"Ahh," Mr. Self-Righteous replied, self-righteously.
The Spicy Pumpkin Soup was next up. Most Sanctimonious Vegan interrupted an interesting discussion on spices to ask if the soup could possibly be prepared raw. The rest of the class looked at her with unabashed annoyance. Someone muttered "yuck" under her breath.
"Um, I guess you could try it," Patrick-Goodreau said doubtfully.
"Well, I'm certainly going to do so as soon as I get home," MSV harrumphed.
On that note, there was a collective rolling of the eyes.
Then there was a feud over salt. MSV and MSR flipped out when they heard that salt would be used when making the pumpkin soup. Patrick-Goodreau bowed under the pressure and omitted it. Yes, studies say that one will probably live longer by giving up salt, but who would even want to live to be 150 if the only people around are folks like Most Sanctimonious and Mr. Self-Righteous?
Next up was Golden Gravy. Things went pretty smoothly except for a little concern from the usual suspects that maybe the rice in the rice milk -- although organic -- hadn't been grown on a small local farm associated with the Community Supported Agriculture movement.
The next dish was Cranberry Apple Crisp, which called for, among other things, sugar and vanilla. Vegans and many vegetarians refuse to use any refined sugar because during the refining process, the enzymes of animals are used.
"What kind of sugar is that?" Most Sanctimonious Vegan asked suspiciously, pointing to the bowl.
"It's a brown, unrefined sugar," Patrick-Goodreau said, stirring the contents.
"Oh, well, I wouldn't use a sugar at all," MSV sniffed.
Patrick-Goodreau ignored this critique and added the cranberries, lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon to the thinly sliced apples. "I like to add a little sugar, but again, the choice is entirely up to you," she said.
Next, it was time to add the vanilla. Mr. Self-Righteous asked if the vanilla was alcohol-based or glycerin-based. At this point, the vegetarians considering a conversion to veganism may have been having second thoughts. Must everything be so hard? Will I turn into this kind of person if I become vegan? Even the other vegans were looking at these two with irritation.
Finally, after three and a half hours, everything was cooking away in the industrial oven. It smelled wonderful. After the food was prepared, everyone stood in line to sample the wares.All the food was very good. The pumpkin soup, in particular, was deliciously spicy and tasted great with the addition of a smidgen of salt. The stuffing with the Pugliese was amazing. And even the strictest carnivore would have loved the creamy and mushroom-laden Golden Gravy. Over at another table, Most Sanctimonious Vegan and Mr. SelfRighteous were kvetching about one thing or another, just like other insufferable Thanksgiving guests throughout America.
Some things never change, whether your turkey is feathered or faux.
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