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The True Meaning of Thanksgiving Isn’t Gluttony


Thanksgiving can be a tough time for vegetarians and vegans (and even harder for the turkeys)—not because delicious autumnal food isn’t abundant this time of year, but because the cultural rhetoric is dominated by talk of baked turkeys, roasted turkeys, leftover turkeys, and—just when you thought it couldn’t get worse—turducken, an increasingly popular dish where a chicken is stuffed into a duck, who is then stuffed into a turkey (and sometimes wrapped in bacon).

Scholars have spent a lot of time discerning exactly what was served in 1621 when 90 Wampanoag Indians gathered for a three-day feast with 52 colonists; and although they can’t be 100% certain of the exact menu, it’s safe to say that turducken wouldn’t have been on it.

Romanticized notions rather than historical facts are what inform our consciousness about Thanksgiving. This is especially true when you look at what is considered “traditional Thanksgiving food,” how it came to be such, and the stories we’ve created about what we consider the “First Thanksgiving.”

The animals killed were most likely deer, ducks, geese, and different species of fish. If cranberries were on the table, it would have been for their red color—not cooked with sugar as we eat them today. (It would be 50 more years before berries were boiled with sugar.) Potatoes hadn’t even arrived in the colonies yet, so nobody was enjoying mashed, baked, sweet, or whipped potatoes; and apples—not native to North America—were not even in New England at the time. And, even if they had an oven in which to bake them, pies, tarts, and cakes were unlikely on the menu given the unavailability of wheat flour and the difficulty in acquiring butter.

Oh, and forks were not used.

Vegetarians and vegans are often accused of “breaking tradition” for not eating turkeys at Thanksgiving, but if historical accuracy is the standard for being true to “tradition,” then anyone who eats bread stuffing, sweet cranberries, apple cobbler, pumpkin pie, buttermilk biscuits, or potatoes slathered in dairy-based butter and marshmallows, is breaking tradition.

Does this mean we shouldn’t eat these or any of the foods that weren’t on the table of the “First Thanksgiving”? Does this mean we shouldn’t use forks? Of course not. The point is we all selectively choose what to include on our dinner tables all the time, particularly at this holiday. We’re all breaking tradition if we use that 1621 gathering as our touchstone.

Of course, it’s an absurd notion that any of us are so tied to tradition that we would try to mimic exactly what was done in the past. At many times throughout our lives, we selectively choose which customs and traditions we want to uphold depending on how convenient, healthful, or ethical they are. We take what we want from the past to create our myths, customs, and traditions, and we leave behind what doesn’t suit us anymore.

Although staged reenactments of historic events can momentarily bring the past back to life, we tend to regard them as quaint reproductions rather than as a model for everyday living.

In other words, we turn to traditions because they act as touchstones for us. Our desire to feel connected to something is greater than any desire to perfectly replicate the original source of our tradition. We bend the rules all the time, and so in the end, it doesn’t matter that people choose not to consume turkeys on Thanksgiving. They’re creating new traditions based on their ideals or tastes, which is exactly how we came to associate turkeys with Thanksgiving in the first place: someone arbitrarily chose to highlight that animal because it was familiar to her. And that “someone” was a very real person with a very specific agenda.

The menu we associate with Thanksgiving was conceived by a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who lobbied various U.S. presidents over the course of several decades to make Thanksgiving an official American holiday. As the editor of a popular and influential women’s magazine (she was also the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), she had the perfect medium for furthering her cause.

To appeal to her readership, she fictionalized and romanticized the events and the menu of what she imagined to be that first Thanksgiving. She shared recipes and illustrations for roasted turkeys, pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, and biscuits—none of which would have been served in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Her advocacy paid off, and in 1863, President Lincoln signed legislation to accept Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The menu that Hale contrived for this fall holiday continues to permeate our culture’s consciousness.

Fast forward almost 100 years, when out of a USDA-funded breeding program came the “Beltsville white” turkey breed, which replaced the darker feathers—and thus darker flesh—of wild turkeys. (White feathers means white flesh.) Sadly, the marketing muscle of the turkey industry has so successfully increased the demand for turkey meat that, in 2014, according to the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics, an estimated 240 million turkeys were brought into this world only to be killed. (These birds must be artificially inseminated since they’ve been bred to have obscenely large breasts and thus cannot naturally copulate).

For the English colonists and Wampanoag Indians, that first gathering was a celebration of food and feasting, and for praising God and the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash), respectively. Before Hale’s mythologizing of that First Thanksgiving, it was considered a simple regional holiday that was celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection: quite a bit different from the gluttonous and commercial celebrations of today.

Creating a beautiful Thanksgiving menu that draws from all the riches of the autumn’s harvest and eliminates animal products is easy and not very different from what most of us grew up with: mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, bread stuffing, cranberry relish, corn, mashed rutabagas, butternut squash soup, sautéed green beans, roasted Brussels sprouts, cornbread or biscuits, and green salad. Vegan desserts encompass everything from apple pie, pumpkin bread, German apple cake, cranberry muffins, and other traditional, seasonal favorites. And for the main dish, acorn squash filled with a pilaf of wild rice, pecans, apples, celery, onions, and spices creates a beautiful centerpiece on the table and focal point on the plate.

Though Sarah Josepha Hale did a great disservice to turkeys, she did have noble ideas about the meaning of this holiday. She envisioned that it would be about charity and generosity, writing: “Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing.”

We shape our traditions out of our ideals – just as Sarah Josepha Hale shaped the tradition of serving turkey out of her ideals. She selectively chose what to include on her menu. And we can do the same.

We can each of us decide what we want Thanksgiving to be about for ourselves and our families and recognize that there is no contradiction between eating compassionately and honoring tradition.

Whatever meaning we attribute to this holiday, it is most certainly not lost – in fact it is enhanced — by creating food-based rituals that affirm rather than take life, that demonstrate compassion and empathy rather than selfishness and gluttony, that celebrate the fact that neither our values nor an animal need be sacrificed in order that we should eat.

May the gifts of the season be yours to enjoy, and may you do so in the company of people you love while feasting on life-giving rather than life-taking foods.

FAQ

Each cooking class is fully interactive. While I am demonstrating, you can chime in with comments, questions, and ooohs and ahhhs the entire time. Not only does this increase connection among the students, both my assistant and I see your questions and make sure we answer all of them.
You can participate in the class using Zoom on your computer, tablet or mobile device.
Upon completing your registration, you receive your confirmation email, which includes the link to our Zoom class, along with information and recipes. Each class is officially a go once a minimum number of slots are filled — at which time the recipes appear on the document. My goal is to have the recipes available to you at least 5 days before the class to give you enough time to order / shop for ingredients, should you choose to cook along.
While I love to see the faces of my students, the use of video during the live class is optional. NOTE: Even if you opt to show your video, for the class recordings, which go out to the general public as on-demand classes, NO ONE'S video is shown except for mine.
We do our best to prepare you in advance so you are ready for when the class begins. If you have issues during the class, my assistant is there to help you. Sometimes it's an issue on the user side, and when there's an issue on my side, we do our best to mitigate it right away. One of the benefits of live classes is that they're in real time, which means it's a live feed. Sometimes technical issues are out of our control, but so far, we've never had any real issues that took away from the purpose of the class.
Absolutely! Unless something goes horribly wrong (and it rarely does), each class is recorded, and students receive the class recording within 2 days of the live class.
While I do send a reminder email out a couple days before our class, I encourage you to add the class to your calendar as soon as you register.
Some students love being able to cook along; some students love to just watch. It is entirely up to you how you want to enjoy the class.
You can decide in advance which dishes you want to cook along with. You might choose to cook along for just one of the dishes or all of them. Whatever you decide, I suggest you have your mise en place all ready. That is to say, have all the ingredients measured and prepped as much as possible. (Mise en place is a French culinary phrase meaning "everything in its place.”)
Ultimately, what we take away is based on what we give, so I encourage you to be present and engaged in the class. But, for my part, if you know me, you know I'm pretty passionate about many things, and I can’t help bringing my love of food, history, language, animals, film, literature, and food lore to each class. My aim is that you walk away with a richer understanding of food, cooking, and eating than before you arrived. More than that, you will get helpful step-by-step instructions about each dish I'm demonstrating and a clear up-close view of all the ingredients and procedures. The best part is that I, too, make mistakes, and you see me make them live in real time. That's how we learn the most.
I'm thrilled to say that many students are regulars and repeats, and you will no doubt get to know some fabulous people when you attend these classes. I encourage engagement and follow-up, including posting photos, questions, and comments on our private Facebook page. Many friends and family members join from different cities, then share a virtual meal with each other once the class is over. (That makes my heart sing.) So, yes, despite being online the classes foster connection.
I have found that 60 minutes is the ideal amount of time to spend in a virtual class. Sometimes we stick around a little longer to finish something up or to enjoy a bonus cocktail by our resident mixologist (my adorable husband), but we like to honor your time and keep the classes to 60 minutes. (Some special / holiday classes are scheduled for 90 minutes, but they’re the exception.) If we go over and you need to drop off, you can always view the video later.
Absolutely! Once you are registered and the class is a go, you are officially enrolled. That means the recipes, resources, video recording, and even the chat transcript are yours to enjoy. You will receive a follow-up email whether you are in the live class or not.
Because the value of the classes includes exclusive recipes and resources as well as the live class / video recording, once a class is officially a go and you get access to the recipes, you cannot be refunded. However, if the class does not meet the minimum sign-up threshold and I cancel the class, you have the option of getting a full refund or switching to a different class. (This is one of the reasons I don't share the recipes until I know we've reached the minimum threshold.)
After the live class is over and enjoyed by students in real time, each class gets converted into an on-demand class so that others may enjoy the recipes, resources, and video recording. Most live classes become on-demand classes within 2 days.
No animal products are ever used in my recipes, so yes, all the classes are vegan / plant-based, which means nothing that comes out of or off of an animal. I've written three cookbooks (The Joy of Vegan Baking, The Vegan Table, and Color Me Vegan), and two lifestyle books (Vegan’s Daily Companion and The 30-Day Vegan Challenge), which also include recipes. I'm also always testing and developing new recipes (as well as modifying and perfecting old ones) to make sure students get the best, clearest, easiest-to-follow recipes — qualities that have become trademark in my work.
While living compassionately and consciously is not about being perfect, and while some students may not have access to the same bulk stores and package-free ingredients as me, I make an effort in my classes to use (and promote) as little packaging and plastic as possible, which is why so many of my recipes and menus are for how to cook and bake homemade and from-scratch!
My classes span a huge range, and your suggestions are always welcome: *Different types of cuisines (Italian, Thai, Asian, Mexican, etc.) *Particular ways of cooking and eating (Quick & Easy, Oil-free, By Color/Phytochemicals, ) *Cooking with specific appliances (Air-Fryer, Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker / Crockpot, etc.) *Homemade from scratch (Seitan, Tempeh, Tofu, Miso, Nut Cheeses, Nut Butters, etc.) *Various holidays and seasons (Mother’s Day, Easter, Passover, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Summer, Fall, etc.) *Focused on meals (Packed Lunches, Breakfast, Brunch, Fancy Dinner, Quick Dinner, etc.) *Cooking with specific foods/ ingredients (Aquafaba, Beans, Spices & Herbs, Greens, Lentils, Grains, etc. *Baking from scratch (Pizza Dough, Breads, Pretzels, Bagels, and Biscuits, Cakes, Pies, Cobblers, etc.) *And everything in between.
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