Thanksgiving - Among The Vegetarians
By Rick Epstein
It's silly to fixate on one meal, but still, Thanksgiving dinner is a tradition going way back to the hard-partying days of the Pilgrims. And the older I get, the more comfort I get from proper observance of ancient traditions.
But this year I will sit down to a feast that will be shared among vegetarians. I foresee a table groaning under the weight of a bountiful spread of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, chestnut stuffing, and there, beside my plate, a plastic-wrapped Slim Jim snack sausage -- a grudging concession to my perverse craving for flesh.
How did I get to this sad place?
My oldest daughter Marie has always had a problem with being a carnivore. When she was 7 we visited Disney World's Epcot Center and ate at a seafood restaurant, whose dining room shared a glass wall with an enormous, well-stocked salt-water aquarium. Diners could admire the finned creatures while devouring other denizens of the deep. "How can people like fish in a friendly way, and also like them in an eating way?" she'd demanded.
At age 9 she said, "I wish that real lions and bears were friendly and you could pet them and snuggle up with them." The Rodney King of the animal kingdom, Marie yearns: "Can't we all just get along?"
Marie, now 12, made the transition to vegetarianism a few months ago at dinnertime. When my wife Betsy brought three little Cornish game hens out of the oven, I said, "Hey, look! It's Huey, Dewey and Louie!"
"Dad!" said Marie. She'd been a picky eater for a long time, with her list of acceptable foods getting shorter and shorter. She subsists mostly on candy, nibbled in her room.
"I'm not going to eat those little chickens. I'm becoming a vegetarian starting now." It didn't surprise me. It seemed a natural result when eating disorder meets adolescent idealism.
Sally, age 9, followed her big sister's lead a couple of days later. Another picky eater, she has always liked to discredit food to get out of eating it, saying it is "rotten" or "sour." Now she can take the moral high ground and shove aside huge categories of food that stand between her and dessert.
With Wendy, age 5, I think it's just a power play. Being the youngest and smallest, she practices emotional judo -- she'll grab anything she can, whether it's a birthday gift or a chicken leg, and figuratively beat you over the head with it.
At dinner last week she yelled, "I DON'T WANNA EAT A MURDERED ANIMAL!" And with that, she joined her sisters in vegetarianism. Placed in that context, the chicken leg on her plate suddenly looked dismembered. And the chicken breast on my plate, slathered with barbecue sauce, looked like the work of a psychopath. The plates of my other two daughters contained only rice and noodles -- nothing that had ever loved its mother. I looked again at the brutal harvest before me, knowing I wouldn't be enjoying too many more of these.
The vegetarian bloc is now 3-2 in our house, and my wife, who does most of the cooking, is leaning that way. Betsy eats a lot of canned tuna, which is a well-known "gateway" food to vegetarianism. It may be only a matter of days before she topples like a domino.
Because I'd been brought up that way, I've been pretty comfortable about eating meat -- until now, when I'm reminded daily that I'm no better than a vampire who must claim a life before each sunrise. I really do admire my daughters' unwillingness to eat fellow creatures. But I'm not giving up without a struggle.
A few weeks ago my 12-year-old and I once again found ourselves in a seafood restaurant. "I'll have a baked potato and salad," Marie told the waitress. "I'm a vegetarian," she confided smugly.
"So am I!" said the waitress approvingly. "And what would YOU like, sir?"
I really wanted the Stuffed Flounder, but was about to settle for the Large Garden Salad, when I saw a way out. "I'll have the Grilled Shark Steak," I told her, adding, "It's a good thing that you vegetarians can go to the beach, knowing that SOMEBODY is working on the shark problem."
Now if only Steven Spielberg would make a scary movie about turkeys.
Rick Epstein can be reached at