At an early age, I learned that the best way to get out of the endless cleaning and dish-washing activities that accompany the Thanksgiving holiday is to help my mom in the kitchen. Each year, from Wednesday until Thursday evening, I am her prep cook, her errand runner, and her preserver of sanity. Over potato peeling, apple chopping, turkey basting, and some perfunctory wine sipping, my mom and I simply click. The conversation flows, punctuated only by her showing me, for perhaps the tenth time, how to properly roll out a pie crust, and by me reminding her, for the hundredth time, that she needs to relax. Beyond the company and holiday cheer, cooking with my mom is what makes Thanksgiving special.
The food itself plays a huge role in our Thanksgiving tradition. My mom uses recipes from The Joy of Cooking for many of our holiday dishes, but her tweaks are what make them memorable. Simply following the recipe isn’t good enough, and she’s always glancing over my shoulder, telling me to add a little of this, subtract a little of that, or substitute more of one ingredient for another. The results are magic. Her mashed potatoes (with lumps, of course) are perfect, her vinaigrette Brussels sprouts are addictive, her pumpkin pie is complex and spicy, and her apple pie has a natural sweetness without any syrupy filling. My favorite dish to prepare on Thanksgiving is simmered apples and pearl onions, an unusual dish made incredible with additions of brandy and about three sticks of butter. That’s one thing about my mom: she’s a healthy eater, but she doesn’t underestimate the value in using real butter, real mayonnaise, and real condensed milk to create our Thanksgiving spread.
Luckily for me, my mom is very accommodating of my vegan diet. Seitan turkey slices, a batch of dairy-free mashed potatoes, and a vegan pumpkin pie are just a few new additions to our menu. While I couldn’t be more thankful for her willingness to adapt our feast, there’s no way I would want her to make Thanksgiving completely vegan. For me, the joy of the holiday comes from spending the day cooking and proudly sharing the results with family and friends. Whether I personally get to indulge in all the food is unimportant. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to deprive our guests of the meal that they know and love. Because, although this opinion may cause some vegans to balk, I’ll freely admit that holiday comfort food sans eggs and dairy does not taste the same. This Thanksgiving, I’ll happily make and serve buttery apples and onions and mayonnaise-filled artichoke dip, even if I personally opt for tofurkey instead.
Christmas is an even more grandiose culinary affair. My family and I usually spend it at my aunt’s house, and the dinner she prepares is unrivaled in size, variety, and taste. The initial passing of dishes along the table takes longer than the meal itself, and fitting some of everything on one plate takes serious portion restraint. My aunt is a well-oiled cooking machine, but her exhaustion becomes evident once she finally sits down to eat after making sure everyone else’s needs have been fulfilled. Our tradition of toasting her as “the hostess with the mostest” is quite an understatement.
When I first became a vegan, I worried about how to handle eating at my aunt’s house around the holidays. I perused articles about vegan dining etiquette and quickly observed a trend: vegans rarely keep their mouths shut. When dining at a carnivore’s table, we are often advised to bring homemade side dishes, to counsel our host beforehand about how to make the usual dishes vegan, or even to arrive with an entire vegan meal for one purchased from a restaurant. Theoretically, I suppose these methods might relieve stress between host and vegan guest. But when I imagine employing any of them at Christmas, I feel small and selfish, not relieved. Bringing a side dish when my aunt has already prepared 10 seems wasteful. Asking her to make certain dishes vegan would add additional stress to her routine, and arriving with a separate meal would just be insulting. On any given day I’m as strict as the next vegan, but I quickly decided that the holidays are where I draw the line, suck it up, and keep my mouth shut.
That’s not to say I’m going to gobble down ham and deviled eggs come Thanksgiving and Christmas. But when my aunt’s garlicky carrots come down the line, I’ll have some, knowing full well that they were probably cooked in butter. What can I say? My family’s cooking and eating traditions are what make the holidays special, and that’s worth a little butter in my veins.