Known to some as National Turkey Day, Thanksgiving can often be a holiday for the carnivorous kind, with a big ol‘ butterball front and center and a wave of tryptophan-induced sleepiness soon to follow.
But for those who’d like to stay awake for the pumpkin pie, a vegetarian Thanksgiving may just be the gelatin-free whipped cream on the soy-based cake this year.
“Sure you’ve got your turkey, but there are so many other great foods you can cook on Thanksgiving,” said Sarah Deck, long-time vegetarian and Davis Food Co-op employee. “The turkey is just one of those foods that you can do without and still have a great meal in front of you.“
But what’s a Thanksgiving without a turkey, you ask? A healthy one. Decreasing the amount of meat in your diet lowers cholesterol and your intake of saturated fat and increases the amount of fiber in your diet, said UC Davis registered dietician Nancy Hudson.
The only unhealthy part about vegetarianism, though, is a depletion of iron, which can lead to tiredness, anemia and a lack of concentration, Hudson said. “There are other high iron foods you can add to your meal,” she said. “Dried fruits and eggs are a few. You should always try to implement beans as well, for protein.“
All those foods go quite well in a Thanksgiving side dish, she said. Adding raisins to a spinach salad will add both iron and protein to a meal, and having the traditional green bean casserole supplemented with toasted pine nuts will work to compensate for additional missing protein.
“Thanksgiving is pretty much centered around the [turkey], which is kind of funny because all the other food is actually vegetarian,” said Ignat Printsev, a senior biochemistry major and vegetarian of two years. “Compromise is pretty easy.“
The most common substitute for a Thanksgiving turkey is a Thanksgiving tofurkey – a soy, wheat and seitan product that comes in the shape and texture of a real bird and is significantly less expensive than one also. Many vegetarians serve a Tofurky with their Thanksgiving fixings to take the place of an actual turkey, or simply because it seems to be the “vegetarian” thing to do.
“In terms of our eating culture is structured, Americans tend to focus on meat and Thanksgiving is a pretty good example of that,” Printsev said. “The turkey is the centerpiece of the whole meal. While it’s American, it may not be the best thing.“
This is especially true during tough economic times. Not only does meat cost significantly more than most vegetarian meals – a large, free range turkey can cost up to $90 – cutting down on meat production takes less of a toll on the environment.
Producing meat requires much more water, fossil fuels and grains than producing vegetables, according to the United Nations‘ “Livestock’s Long Shadow” Report, so cooking up a tofurkey may just be a good idea, if sustainability is what you’re into.
However, having a substitute for a real turkey isn’t always necessary, Hudson said.
“Why try to make something else into a meat substitute when there are so many other foods out there that are good on their own? You should eat soy for the sake of soy, not just to take the place of or mimic meat,” she said.
Variety of food is certainly a characteristic of Thanksgiving that vegetarians can also implement, along with meat eaters. Since soy is classified as an allergen product, relying on soy products like tofu and soymilk could result in potential intolerance to any soy products in the future, according to the Bastyr Center for Natural Health. So incorporating a colorful array of vegetables, grains and fruits on the dinner table is an important quality of the vegetarian Thanksgiving.
For vegetarians “Turkey Day” is not exclusively about turkey but more so about family.
“The more important part [of Thanksgiving] is family,” Printsev said. “And with vegetarianism, the value of life exceeds the pleasure or the taste of meat.“
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.