Some years ago when we decided to get married, my now-husband and I decided that our family routine around holidays would follow a certain cadence. We’d spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey, Christmas in Maine with mine.
I was much more attached to the idea of Christmas with my own family than he was, and I firmly contend that Christmas in Maine is a more authentic Christmas than it would be any place else. You stand very little chance of waking up to billowing drifts of white snow piling up outside your windows in New Jersey, and billowing drifts of white snow are easily in the top 5 of satisfying Christmas experiences. There’s a reason Bing Crosby never sang anything about the Garden State Parkway or having your gas pumped for you at Wawa. Of course, thanks to the irregularities of climate change, we spent last Christmas sweating our legs off in matching holiday fleece pajamas on a 65-degree day but that’s neither here nor there.
So I’m #TeamChristmas but Thanksgiving has always easily been a close second. There are no gifts to receive, but there’s also the blissful relief of not having to buy gifts to give to anyone else. I love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, I love lounging on the sofa with men watching football and I love that there are no expectations of getting anything done or going anywhere. Most of all, I love that Thanksgiving is unabashedly devoted to good food.
Thanksgiving, at least the way it was practiced in my family, is a shrine to food. The dinner is the star of the whole event, everything else is just gravy. (Yeah. Lean in.) Thanksgiving dinner is a ceaseless bounty, a near embarrassment of offerings. Two kinds of potatoes. Rolls and stuffing. Cranberry sauce with whole chunks of berries or jiggly and ridged from the can. Green beans with Durkee fried onions on top (which is really the only way to redeem cooked green beans, in my opinion). Desserts so varied and plentiful it’s not about “if” but “how many.” And of course, the turkey.
Ultimately it’s all about the turkey. The unmistakable crackling sound every time the oven door opens, the glorious scent of it drifting all throughout the house.
How big of a bird is it? Was it frozen? How long did it take to defrost? How heavy was it? You don’t say. How long will it take to cook? Has it been basted enough? Should we baste it again? Is there such a thing as too much basting? No one knows.
I once heard tell of a large family in which the mother roasted two turkeys at Thanksgiving, one for serving and one for picking at. I was instantly wistful that I wasn’t born into that particular family; such is my mania for picking at the turkey. It seemed to me that a mother who understood the sheer delight of picking at a turkey–without having your hand slapped back with admonitions about salmonella–that was the type of mother who would intrinsically understand everything about me in a way my own mother never seemed to grasp. Of course, she might also be the type to put raisins in the stuffing, which would ruin the whole relationship. Better to stick.
My husband and his family don’t have the same relationship to food. They eat, but it always feels more like an afterthought than a prime directive. There might be a lot of reasons for this, but as it relates to Thanksgiving the most likely culprit is the fact that my in-laws are vegan.
Now, there are plenty of vegetarian cooks who can make food that’s so delicious you completely forget there’s no meat involved. But my in-laws are not these sort of vegetarians. They don’t really care much about what they eat–they only really care that it doesn’t come from animals. As a result, they eat a sort of mishmash diet of fresh fruits and vegetables with random things like soy hot dogs thrown into the mix. They’re checking the box on sustenance, basically. They’re consuming what they need to not die, while making sure nothing else does either.
This year will be my ninth Thanksgiving with my in-laws. They’ve always been vegetarian, but in those early years they used to purchase a turkey for the guests to consume. However, they took about as much care preparing it as one might exercise with a Hot Pocket–basically sticking it in the oven and then just taking it out some time later. The result was a sad and shriveled affair that didn’t lend itself much to eating, let alone gleeful picking. For all I know it might have been some sort of guerilla vegetarian maneuver designed to put us all off turkey forever, which I could maybe see working on someone more, you know, weak-willed than me.
They went full vegan a few years ago and since then they’ve understandably refused to roast a turkey as part of their family Thanksgiving. Instead they place an advance order with the local Shop-Rite for a stuffed Tofurky, large enough to feed a sizable crowd.
I realize that I am skirting dangerously close to hyperbole. But trust me when I tell you that this foodstuff is basically an abomination. It comes shipped inside a red cardboard box which proudly proclaims “Vegetarian Feast!” across the front. (Stop it, box, you’re embarrassing yourself.)
What’s inside is pure Satan. Excuse me, seitan.
It’s a protein made entirely of wheat gluten that they somehow…craft? Smush? Mold? into a vague approximation of the shape of a roast. Then they fill it with a stuffing-like substance, tint it with some kind of a vegan-friendly brown food coloring, vacuum seal it and ship it off to socially-conscious retirees in the Jersey suburbs so that their extended family members can sit bravely around it on the fourth Thursday of every November and weakly proclaim, “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
I love these people; they’re my chosen family. But these vegetarian substitutes are such a pale imitation of the real thing that there’s no way for them to ever be palatable to me.
Earth Spread will never be an acceptable stand-in for butter, just as Veggie Shreds need to step away slowly from the macaroni. Let’s just eat something else, something that’s not trying so hard to impersonate the thing that it couldn’t be farther from being.
Better yet, let’s go to a restaurant.