Beyond the Turkey: A Vegetarian Thanksgiving

VICUSCHKA / Adobe Stock

It's okay. Deep breaths. Thanksgiving this year will be as festive and joyful as always, just with one slight adjustment. We're going to reconsider the turkey. 

I have yet to see successes even in my own household on this subject, so I enter into this dialogue tenderly, but the turkey conundrum deserves some reflection. What is, after all, our hopeless devotion to the signature bird that graces our Thanksgiving table year after year?

Most often the response to that question is a simple one: tradition! Since the dawn of kindergarten, little five-fingered handprint turkeys have informed us that no Thanksgiving celebration is complete without mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and a healthy ritual sacrifice of one beloved gobbler.

The Real First Thanksgiving. We Think.

We now understand that the narrative of Pilgrims and the Native Americans joining together to give thanks for the wealth of harvest in the year 1621 might plaster over some more largely inhumane consequences of colonialism that the Wampanoag tribe withstood. And furthermore, the story is full of mythlore. When the first Thanksgiving took place remains unclear but has been somewhat arbitrarily assigned to the events held in 1621. Celebrations in which thanks for the harvest were given were routine at the time, and the event we call the first Thanksgiving was more like a three-day festival than a sit-down meal. Thanksgiving as we know it was only declared a holiday over 200 years later by Abraham Lincoln, who may have been trying to remedy the atrocities done to the Native Americans with a celebration of diplomacy.

The list of things not present at the original Thanksgiving dinner includes, but is not limited to: potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, rolls, apple pie, pumpkin pie or (whimper) any pie at all. Oh, and turkey. Historians are quite sure that venison was prepared - both of the only two personal accounts we have of the festivities mention deer as being contributed by the native tribe  - in addition to lobster, clams, stew, beans and... eel. The letters from the time reference the availability of wild turkeys in the Americas but may have been taken out of context and applied to the Thanksgiving meals. In fact, the "wildfowl" served at the harvest celebration was just as likely swan - or pigeon. (Try serving a pigeon on your Thanksgiving dinner table and see how it flies.) Indeed, accounts of turkey itself remain inconclusive.

The Turkey Tradition

Of course, tradition rarely has to do with the tradition of one's ancestors, so much as the traditions of one's own - taste memory, the nostalgic duty of cranberry sauce preparation, the pride of being elevated to the adult table, the recollection of one's parent leading a family in thanks and the ceremonial carving of the shared beast. And in this way, whether the turkey was truly present at any of the original thanksgivings might not matter. But whether we eat it today does. 

So it bears asking: would a Thanksgiving be any less familial, colorful and inclusive without a turkey at its center? Perhaps the joy of indulging in a turkey is the collection of family and friends around one unified dish, the feasting from one communal stuffed entity. In which case, the options for stuffed feasts are abundant! And a great many of the alternative plant-based ingredients might actually have been at the harvest festivals of the Native Americans and Pilgrims.

10 Vegetarian Alternative Main Dishes for Thanksgiving

  1. Three Sisters Squash. Native to the United States, acorn squash are a beautiful display of indigenous pride. And as corn and beans are thought to have been at the "First Thanksgiving," these stuffed squash are a nod to our country's heritage.

     Pilgrims Were Surprised to Find Onions Already Grew on American Soil. Pilgrims Were Surprised to Find Onions Already Grew on American Soil. Photo credit: Mara Zemgaliete / Adobe Stock.

  2. Instead of feasting over a communal beast, try feasting over a communal tart with this Rustic Onion Tart. The Pilgrims brought onions over on the Mayflower with them, only to find they were native to the Americas as well.
  3. Stuff a pumpkin with any of these ten beautiful Stuffed Pumpkin dishes 

    Swiss Chard and Other Leafy GreensSwiss Chard and Other Leafy Greens. Photo credit: Grislana / Adobe Stock.

  4. Or prepare this Slab Galette with Swiss Chard and Gruyere. British colonizers would have recognized many of the greens indigenous to the Americas, like cabbage, collards and Swiss chard. Though, rather than sautéed, the green dishes at the original Thanksgiving were likely boiled (because, England).
  5. Cranberries weren't considered for use as a meat sauce until much later, but cranberries and walnuts were eaten by Native Americans and likely would have made an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Stuff some squashes and prepare this Twice-Baked Butternut Squash With Cashew Cheese, Walnuts and Cranberries.

    Cranberries Would Have Gone UnsweetenedCranberries Would Have Gone Unsweetened. Photo credit: Isavira / Adobe Stock.

  6. Walnuts, beechnuts and chestnuts are all native to the Americas and Portobellos are meat-like in consistency, making a Chestnut Stuffed Mushroom dish a festive and satisfying turkey replacement.
  7. Tomato and Concord Grape Tart with a Cornmeal Black Pepper Crust. Corn is native to the US and was used often as a flour source or in porridge, though heritage strains of corn are less sweet and would have been much more colorful. Crust sounds like a far more decadent option.

     Colorful Native CornNative Corn from Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. Photo credit: Maggie Tauranac.

  8. Despite there not being apples yet in the Americas (but... as American as...), this Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprout and Bread Stuffing with Apples will make you completely forget it's not stuffed in anything.
  9. Pumpkin Pot Pie. Because who's to say pumpkin pie has to be sweet? This savory pumpkin pie with carrots and white beans might not be traditional - there was no flour or butter - but it is autumnal flavorings at their finest.

    Apples Were an American LatecomerApples Were an American Latecomer. Photo credit: Maggie Tauranac.

  10. And finally, the Vegducken. Don't stuff a turkey with a duck this year, and avoid the Tofurky altogether. Make Butternut Squash Vegducken. Or if you don't do it yourself, watch the video - because it's mesmerizing.

This year, when preparing for your feast with family and friends, consider the importance of the turkey at the helm. It might genuinely be the most central part of Thanksgiving to you and your family, in which case, celebrate by choosing to serve a sustainably and humanely raised bird. If not - if the cost of a heritage turkey is too high for your family, for example, if you don't love the taste of turkey that much anyway, or if you think Thanksgiving can be Thanksgiving without it - maybe this year act a little presidential and pardon a turkey.