Food issues

This week will mark my 15th year celebrating Thanksgiving as a vegetarian.

It will also likely be the 15th year in which I find myself, once again, engaged in multiple conversations about what it’s like to participate in such a meat-centric holiday without actually, you know, ever consuming a single morsel of animal flesh.

There are well-meaning friends who will worry, sincerely, that I won’t get enough to eat at the table. And then, there are the relatives who, eyeing the homemade vegetarian entrée I’ve brought, will marvel that, apparently, this crazy college fad has yet to pass. They will, as always, decline to sample the Tofurky or cashew-mushroom terrine, even though there’s plenty to share.

And, of course, there’ll be my brother who will, without a doubt, laugh outright at my misguided ways. He’s been trying for ages, you see, to convert me back to carnivore status. Once, he nearly flipped out with joy when he caught me carrying a Burger King cup. Imagine his disappointment when he learned that, in a moment of weakness, I’d gone through the drive-through for an order of fries and a Diet Coke (yes, I get the irony, thank you very much).

It’s likely that he’ll still view this “vegetarian thing,” as something of a personal assault—how can we be from the same family? Why do I dare try to overthrow the natural order of the food chain? How can he hold his head up in public with such a commie-hippie for a sister?

(Meanwhile, my other brother will remain quiet, having survived his own temporary bout with vegetarianism many years ago.)

Not wanting to eat meat doesn’t make me a rabble-rouser. It just makes me feel that way—even in an era when it seems as though everyone else at the table has food issues.

My formerly vegetarian brother, for example, is experimenting with a gluten-free diet, hoping to find the answer to his myriad intestinal problems. Meanwhile, my other brother can’t stomach raw vegetables, several of my aunts don’t do well with olive oil and there’s always somebody who won’t eat (take your pick, depending on the current diet fad) carbs, red meat or dairy.

And that’s fine. But while most consider such meal restrictions to be socially acceptable, vegetarianism is often questioned. It’d be different, I sense, if I eschewed meat for health reasons instead of ethical ones. As it is, I can’t begin to count the number of times someone’s challenged me on the logic, principles and honesty of my diet.

Still, it is getting easier. Although barely 4 percent of the population eats a meat-free diet, according to Vegetarian Times magazine, there are other signs that the way of eating is becoming more culturally acceptable.

In recent years the idea of Meatless Mondays has gained traction; the movement, a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, encourages people to enjoy a meat-free diet at least one day a week.

Likewise, more restaurants now offer at least one vegetarian or vegan entree; in October, 10 Sacramento-area restaurants participated in the Vegan Chef Challenge—a “contest” that challenged eateries to feature specialty vegan meals on the menu—something beyond the usual bland pasta-and-veggies combo.

But back to the Thanksgiving table.

To be fair, while various family members might give my meat-free alternative a quizzical look, they’re mostly good-natured about it.

My husband is also a vegetarian and my mother and mother-in-law, neither of who are vegetarian, try to make us feel included. Both incredibly gracious about our dietary preferences—in fact, they often prepare special dishes just for us.

They don’t have to, of course.

But they do; to me it’s a symbol of acceptance, a sign of love.

And for that, I’m thankful.