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Thanksgiving Sans the Bird

[Roasted and stuffed pumpkin for Thanksgiving, fall 2008.]

Thanksgiving is the cook’s holiday — sure, Christmas can be, too, or Easter, or even New Year’s Eve if you’re kitchen-inclined and like me take any excuse to have a dinner party. But Thanksgiving is truly the only U.S. holiday where the entire focus is on food

; indeed, one of the whole points of the day is to cook and eat and feel grateful we are lucky enough to be able to do so. It’s also a day to devote entirely to the kitchen; to cook languorously (if you wish) and come up with some new twists on old favorites is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.

I haven’t eaten meat in years and years (my 14-year anniversary is coming up this winter, and my meatless-conversion is a story I should tell some day), and by this point it’s second nature for me to cook with loads of vegetables and/or legumes in every meal. Thanksgiving is no exception, though in the past few years I’ve been making just make a bit of the ‘extras’ — i.e. applesauce, mushroom gravy, maybe a cornbread stuffing with apricots and walnuts if my brother’s around — rather than hosting and cooking the whole meal myself. But I have! And it’s been glorious.

When I lived in Washington I used to have my brother stay the weekend, and sometimes other friends would come down from upstate New York, too. I’d gather up all the other in-towners who couldn’t make the trek to their various homes for one reason or another and we’d cook in my tiny kitchen: enormous batches of apple-butternut squash or sweet potato soup, tofu curries or vegetable quiche, potatoes roasted and/or mashed, salads, pies of all permutations … We feasted on leftovers for days.

These days my Thanksgivings are often smaller and less extravagant, and they also make better use of seasonal produce. Instead of a cherry pie I will of course bake one filled with apples (with the occasional pear slipped in) and I’ll roast cauliflower rather than asparagus. The vegetarian entree might be a pumpkin baked until soft and sweet and then filled with a barley and chickpea stew. Or I might roast acorn squash and stuff each half with a vegan polenta and portabello mushrooms swirled with sundried tomato pesto.

I would argue that even the most ardent turkey fan might not miss it if treated to one of those dishes.

My ideal Thanksgiving doesn’t take place inside, however. No: It is instead in a forest — a redwood grove, perhaps, such as the one in Jack London State Park, or Armstrong Woods; or it might be in a vast meadow near the sea, with all the fog blown out and a calm wind — on a day when it’s chilly enough to snuggle into your favorite down vest, but not cold enough to warrant gloves or hats. We’d sit around an old wooden table, long enough to accommodate at least 20 people, with the outdoor fireplace spitting and crackling nearby, sending long wisps of smoke up into the afternoon sky.

The meal, of course was cooked in the sprawling old house nearby where we’d all stay (there are fireplaces indoors, too). Large platters of vegetable dishes are scattered along the splintery table; bottles of local red wine stand at the ready. The day is is cool, crisp, infinitely clear, and birds soar overhead, calling to each other as they settle into the tall trees. It feels right to be outside, eating and toasting and giving thanks in such a beautiful, quiet place with simple, delicious food.

But this is the Thanksgiving I haven’t yet had, though I do hope to one day. Instead of dining en plein air under the redwoods, on Thursday I’ll stir my pot of gravy while they stand tall and straight outside in the backyard, reminding me the outdoors is nearly in, and I’ll have no complaints at all. This year we’re doing a smaller version of the meal including some familiar standbys — cranberry margaritas, homemade applesauce, my mother’s delicious and decadent mushroom pie, vegetarian gravy — with just three of us, but it will be no less satisfying.

[Vegan mushroom galette, November 2008.]

Here are a few resources to help prepare your own vegetarian main dish to add to the Thanksgiving feast:

– Ways to cook pumpkin, that quintessential fall squash, from my piece on NPR last year: The Many Faces of the Great Pumpkin

– The Washington Post’s round-up of vegetarian Thanksgiving dishes on the All We Can Eat blog

– NY Times’ “Recipes for Health” column strips out some of the fat: Recipes for a Healthy Thanksgiving

– Some beautiful offerings from much-missed Gourmet: Vegetarian Thanksgiving Mains

and gorgeous Vegetarian Thanksgiving Menus

– The vegetarian Thanksgiving piece I wrote for NPR last November: A Vegetarian Thanksgiving

-And for fun, a column I wrote for the Chronicle ages ago, about Thanksgivings past in my little DC apartment: A small apartment Thanksgiving with all the fixings


  1. Mmm, anything pumpkin is after my own heart. Which makes fall and winter much easier to bear, of course.

    I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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