If there’s a holiday people say they have the most trouble coping with, it’s Christmas. I doubt these people are vegetarians. Thanksgiving has left a scar on my psyche the size of the turkey my Aunt Silvia chased me around her dining room with on the Thanksgiving I informed her that I no longer ate meat.
“Oh, you’re a vegetarian?” Aunt Silvia replied. “Tell me, Mr. Vegetarian, are you too good to eat food now? Because turkey is food!” (Picture Doris Roberts’ character from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” only not as wonderful.)
I wasn’t really hungry, I politely explained, an argument that could have been more effectively made without a mouth full of potato-chip sandwich. But it didn’t matter, because Aunt Silvia wasn’t really listening. She had been brought up during the Depression, when apparently it was necessary to contemplate even your closest friends in a light Bearnaise sauce.
“You’ll eat my stuffing,” Silvia commanded. “My stuffing has no meat.” Of course, it was only cooked inside a deceased turkey’s head hole.
According to my middle-class Long Island family, being a vegetarian meant string beans with your steak. My father understood nothing about my new lifestyle choice — which was the result of a really good college philosophy course combined with some really bad college spareribs — yet Dad never let this technicality stand in the way of informing me all about it.
“So you think it’s wrong for the mean old wolf to kill the defenseless sheep?” he asked. “There is no morality at play there. This is what nature intended!” A former biology teacher, Mr. Levitan knew the food chain well. Most of the highest animals were splayed on his plate as he lectured me.
“Do you realize that you have canine teeth in your mouth?” he continued. “And that these teeth were designed to rip flesh from bone?” (My canines were more suited to oysters, actually, thanks to 10 years of orthodonture.)
Years later, Dad would apologize, admitting that I was probably correct to give up meat — at least from a health standpoint. (Colon-polyp surgery will make one admit that.) But back then, he was happy to sit back, smile and watch Aunt Silvia eat me for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Food is food!” she continued. Aunt Silvia was out of control at this point, her bouffant starting to spin like grey cotton candy. “What are you, a Moonie? Reverend Moon tells you don’t eat food?” There was no reasoning anymore.
I moved west shortly after that, mostly to escape the obligation of Thanksgiving at Aunt Silvia’s. Here, the holiday hasn’t been a physical problem for me, but certain things about it can trigger my PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stuffing Disorder).
For the sake of your non-carnivorous guests who might harbor similar issues, I present the following list of things to do — and to never do — for the vegetarians at your table.
1. Do over-serve veggie sides.
Heap vegan mashed potatoes, spinach-stuffed mushrooms, string beans, salad, et al. on a separate area of your table until it looks like the backstage spread at a Paul McCartney concert. Mark the area or, better yet, each separate dish “vegetarian” on an index card and, most importantly, if you’re a meat-eater, stay away! (You can eat other things here, we can’t.) As a matter of fact, we know how inconsiderate your Uncle Sal is, so keep several emergency replacement veggie dishes warming in the oven that he has no clue about.
2. Don’t ask why we’re vegetarian.
All of us have different reasons, any one of which could be a conversation-stopper. And the time for a heart-to-heart about why meat doesn’t appetize us is not while you’re chomping on a leg and attempting to make small talk.
3. Do cook vegetarian properly.
Make separate batches, in clean pans, without animal products like chicken stock and bacon grease. (Yes, we can taste if you lie about not using them!) Never serve a vegetarian dish with gravy, bacon bits or (for the vegans) eggs, cheese, milk or butter added in. And have dedicated serving utensils for every dish so our rolls don’t taste like your Swedish meatballs.
4. Don’t ask if we’re ‘sure’ we don’t want turkey.
Would you offer beer to an alcoholic and, when he refuses, ask whether he’s sure? (Excuse me, person who has completely dedicated yourself to a restrictive lifestyle: Is being sure about it something you ever gave serious consideration to?) And don’t treat refusing the turkey like burning the flag. When we politely keep it passing passed us, we are not stating, “I do not approve of America.”
5. Stop with the mock turkey mocking.
We realize that the thought of ever tasting a soybean replica seems gross to you while biting into the bloody veins of some real creature’s former mother does not. But you do not have to crack the same tired Tofurky jokes every year — especially if we didn’t bring one. If you ever actually tried it, you’d realize it’s delicious and that the reason you mock it might just be your own discomfort with feeling challenged by someone who actually walks the saving-animals-and-the-environment talk. (OK fine, so “Tofurky” is a silly name, too.)