Advice from a Vegan for Hosting One of Us at Thanksgiving

Sharing the table with those who are vegan doesn't have to be so tough.
Sharing the table with those who are vegan doesn't have to be so tough. Bullion
Thanksgiving is a stressful holiday at the best of times. Extended family leans on your hospitality, and the logistical nightmare of planning the meal haunts your waking hours. Between crafting a turkey basting schedule and ensuring guests don't end up bringing 12 variations of pea salad, you completely forget about that one cousin or friend who's vegan.

What the hell do vegans do for Thanksgiving?

The answer isn't as complicated as you might think, but with everything else on your metaphorical plate, providing for a plant-based or vegan guest can seem daunting. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some tips all the Turkey Day hosts out there should keep in mind for serving your vegan guests and making them feel welcome at the dinner table.

What to Cook

Yeah, this is the big one. Thanksgiving feasts aren't exactly known for leaning on the greens, and in fact tend to give a well-dressed bird or pig center stage. Don't feel like you need to provide a protein alternative on a similar scale. Instead consider making modifications to a heartier side dish, like the dressing or potatoes. Recipes that use butternut squash as their base are often filling and simple while showcasing the best flavors of fall — I recommend roasting in maple syrup, spices and chili flakes, then filling the orange gourd with nuts, rice or chickpeas.

Looking to modify existing recipes? Cutting dairy and eggs from your favorites is much simpler than omnivorous chefs might think. Vegan mayonnaise and butter can sub in for the classic stuff in any and all applications, and non-dairy milks like soy or cashew maintain fat without adding unwanted flavor profiles. As an added bonus, grocery stores and the food sections of big-box retailers have been stocking these vegan alternatives more frequently.

Egg alternatives can be a little trickier for the inexperienced. If boxed egg replacements are simply too weird, soak flax seeds in lukewarm water for 10 minutes before adding them to your cornbread, pastries or other baked goods. When in doubt, ask your guests: They will no doubt be able to suggest their preferred brands and methods. I'm carting some supplies to my grandmother ahead of her four-day cooking ritual.

Finally, have your dinner rolls or bread of choice hit the table without butter already on them. Hot bread is universally loved, so make sure it's also universally edible.

click to enlarge
Get creative with vegetables.
Peja Krstic

Other Options

Does the thought of making any substitution to great-grandmother's time-honored recipe horrify you? Well, despite this meal not being for her, I won't presume to tarnish tradition. You can instead suggest your vegan guests bring a dish of their own creation for the table. That way, not only will they have something sure to please themselves, but other diners have the options of tasting the mysterious meatless meal. Understanding often begins in the stomach.

But Thanksgiving is about overindulgence if it's about anything else. Let the vegan members of your Turkey Day crew provide as much as they want to bring, allowing them to take part in unbuttoning pants and loosing collars with the rest of the celebrants.

And if quantity matters more than quality, brands such as Tofurkey, Gardein and Field Roast sell prepared dishes at many grocers. Apply heat, plate, and wipe your hands.

At the end of the day, the meal will be pleasant as long as everyone involved knows what to expect. Clearly communicate what dishes your vegan guests will be able to eat and ask them if that's OK. If they suggest bringing their own main dish, sides or even a dessert, graciously accept the offering. That's work you don't have to do, after all.

Table Manners

For whatever reason, some family members insist on treating me like a porcelain cup during holiday meals. Nothing spoils a hot plate of fall foods faster than whinging and wincing from loved ones on your behalf. When your vegan guests arrive for dinner, don't:

  • Ask them if it's OK for you to eat meat. Yes, they are not there to police everyone else's plate.
  • Try to hide the turkey or pig from them like it's a murder scene. As long as they know meat is being served, don't act ashamed of it.
  • Pass a dish to them while warning it contains meat/butter/eggs/etc.
  • Ask them how they get their protein.
  • Mention considering going vegan to lose weight (Oreos, Takis and most alcohol are vegan).
  • Declare proudly that you "could never go vegan."
  • Trot out canards about soy and estrogen, malnutrition or anything that smacks of Alex Jones segments.
Instead, do:

  • Ask to try anything they brought. Make them feel appreciated, not just tolerated.
  • Ask good-faith questions about being vegan and food alternatives.
  • Treat them like adults who know how to navigate their own lifestyles.
If you invited these people to your dinner, you obviously care about them. The best advice I can offer is to be open, honest and receptive. For many vegans, any effort at all is a triumph — imperfect, good intentions are a sight better than judgmental snubbing. These suggestions are a primer, and vegans are far from a monolith. But caring more for the folks at your table than the plates you serve them is a good start.

Chase Carter is the audience engagement editor for the Dallas Observer.
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