Keep the gravy, please pass the veggies

Posted Nov. 17, 2009, at 5:27 p.m.

Charlotte Zelz made a big decision last summer. A decision that would seem big to lots of other people, that is — but to her, it just made sense. This past August, 12-year-old Charlotte gave up meat.

“I never really liked meat anyway. My Mom said she saw it coming,” she said. “Then I did more research and decided that I also didn’t want to hurt animals. My cousin is a vegetarian, and she made me feel like it was something kids could do, as well as adults. It’s just a good idea.”

When Zelz, a seventh-grade student at William S. Cohen Middle School in Bangor, sits down at the Thanksgiving dinner table next week, she will abstain from turkey and gravy. Instead, she’ll load up on roasted vegetables and vegetarian stuffing. Like millions of other vegetarians and vegans in the United States, she will have a meat-free meal on a day that’s synonymous with the big bird.

“My Mom and I have been looking through cookbooks,” she said. “I really like sweet potatoes, so I think we’ll do something with that.”

Click here for some great recipes beyond the big bird.

Depending on the guests gathered at a meal, the vegetarian experience can range from mashed everything and cranberry sauce to a delicious array of herbivorous treats. Some families will happily accommodate a vegetarian, while some look on with pity as a grandchild or sibling turns down turkey. With the exception of the actual turkey, however, there’s not one Thanksgiving staple that can’t be made vegetarian, or even vegan — a simple Google search will reveal plenty of recipes for vegan pumpkin pie, stuffings and even green bean casseroles (a recipe is included).

Mary Lake, a vegan blogger from Bangor (www.mittenmachen.com), is not only vegan, but also is allergic to gluten. It makes eating in general interesting, but as an adventurous cook, Lake welcomes the challenge. She’s not a huge fan of tofurkey, or other soy- or grain-based meat substitutes, so she opts for lots of vegetables and legumes to cook and serve.

“When I was younger, I did the whole tofurkey thing, but the flavor and texture were always a little off. Last year, I brought a big pan of brussels sprouts, potatoes, carrots and some other root vegetables and roasted them with olive oil and sea salt,” she said. “I also made a hearty white bean and sage casserole. Those dishes, along with cranberry sauce, were plenty. I brought a homemade vegan pecan pie to share for dessert.”

Lake has developed new recipes that are both vegan and gluten-free, including a wild rice and leek stuffing, which she’ll use in a hollowed-out squash (recipe included). As for relatives who eat meat, she has opted out on turkey in years before, but has not yet hosted her own Thanksgiving with a mixed diet crowd.

“Compromising with meat-eating relatives hasn’t been an issue, yet,” said Lake. “They cook a turkey and I just don’t eat it. If I ever host, there won’t be turkey, and maybe then things would get trickier.”

Bangor resident Angelia Levesque is not a vegetarian. She has a niece who is, however, and she tries to accommodate her as best she can at their family Thanksgiving. She doesn’t cook vegetarian regularly, but when Turkey Day or other holidays roll around, she has to make sure there are meat-free options. Levesque cooks Fall Stuffed Squash (recipe included) for her niece, which has been a big hit in her household during the holidays.

“It’s only on holidays, so [that] makes it easy. I try to have at least one hearty dish for her,” said Levesque. “The family doesn’t seem to notice — it’s just really no big deal. I like that I always have someone to take the leftover veggie tray home.”

Catherine Schmitt, a Bangor resident who has been vegetarian since the age of 15, has had the full gamut of Thanksgiving dinners — from a wealth of vegetarian options, to platefuls of potatoes and squash. She’s flexible in her tastes, and believes most vegetarians feel similarly.

“My advice to those planning a meal and trying to accommodate vegetarians is to stop thinking that there needs to be some kind of ‘main’ dish,” said Schmitt, 33. “We vegetarians are used to meals that don’t consist of a large slab of protein; to meat eaters it looks like we have a big blank spot on our plate, but to us that space just means more room for sides — and who doesn’t love Thanksgiving side dishes?”

Schmitt suggests that people hosting both vegetarians and meat-eaters at a Thanksgiving dinner remember that while a “main dish” isn’t always necessary, diversity in choices is.

“What hosts may need to do differently is have more balanced sides,” she said. “I am always desperate for something green among all the mashed, pureed and mushy. So salads with dark leafy greens or sauteed kale would be welcome.”

Anxious hosts still looking for more options for their vegetarian loved ones can try their hand at whole grains or bean-based dishes, or can spice it up with some ethnic dishes.

“If someone is still concerned that this isn’t enough, try a simple hearty pilaf with whole grains or lentils or chickpeas, or even just some whole-grain bread,” said Schmitt. “Of course, there is always the option to go ethnic, although this can be tricky. Indian spices and flavors work particularly well with T-day foodstuffs.”

Paul Sheridan, a longtime vegetarian from Northport, has hosted vegetarian and vegan potlucks at his home for years. His Thanksgiving this year will be no different.

“This and last T-Day we host a large vegan potluck for those on the Belfast area veggie potluck e-mail list, and their friends willing to eat veg for the day,” said Sheridan. “There was just enough food for all, no one was hungry by any means, and without any leftovers, a true accomplishment.”

Sheridan will serve a vegan specialty next week — his Rice and Beans Four Tastes (recipe included), which combines sweet, sour, hot and salty tastes with hearty beans and rice. While the Sheridan Thanksgiving is catered specifically to those who don’t eat meat, he has been to plenty of dinners where meat was served. Generally speaking, he just passes on turkey, not unlike someone passing on Brussels sprouts.

“Sometimes, someone would notice we were not eating the turkey, and the simple answer was ‘We are vegetarians,’” said Sheridan. “In more enlightened company, this leads to interesting discussions as to why, wherefores and hows. At other meals, the uncurious just leave it at that. We don’t proselytize at meat-eaters’ meals. We are the guests, after all.”

The Davis family, of Harmony, have been vegetarians or vegans for most of their lives. Norris, Marina and their son, Will, have served up strictly vegan dishes at their Thanksgivings for nearly 30 years. A typical Davis family celebration is not only meat-free, but it’s as local as you can get: right from their backyard garden.

“My favorite part of our Thanksgiving celebration is that most of what we serve we grow ourselves,” said Marina Davis. “We feel like our Thanksgiving is very much in line with the original spirit of the whole holiday, as far as food goes. And whenever we’ve had guests who are meat-eating, they’ve been fine with eating a vege-tarian meal.”

Their son left the herbivorous lifestyle a few years ago, but still greatly enjoys his family’s vegetarian Thanksgiving. In particular, he loves his mother’s Pumpkin Indian Pudding — which is gluten-free, in addition to being vegan (recipe included). He may have added animal products back into his diet, but he retains a deep appreciation for meat-free eating.

“Now that I’ve grown up, moved away, I eat meat,” he said. “But I’ve got to say that I’ve had both vegetarian and traditional Thanksgivings, and the vegetarian ones are certainly much more memorable.”

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