November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving Transformed: Part 1

When I was younger, Thanksgiving was a much different holiday than it is for me today. Back then, I drew hand-tracings that resembled turkeys, I had history lessons about pilgrims and Native Americans, and I feasted with my whole extended family under one roof. We had a special table just for the kids, and the grown-ups would fill up an entire banquet table. I would eat tons of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie topped with whipped cream. I could never decide if I liked pumpkin or pecan better. Our uncle would spray whipped cream into our mouths, and we thought it was the coolest thing. After eating, I'd lay down on the couch and listen to all of the conversations around me. Sometimes, I'd drift off to sleep. It was all innocent and fun.

Then, I started growing up. I learned about the torturous lives of factory farmed turkeys and started to view our headless centerpiece in a new and horrific light. I discovered that the pilgrims were no more friendly to the Native Americans than we were to the birds on our plates. Their relationship was not one based on sharing as we had been taught as children, but one of deceit, domination, and violence at the hands of the colonizers. When I began to understand this whitewashing I had been subjected to, I wanted no part of this awful holiday. No one else around me seemed to care about the history of the holiday or what it meant. If I had not been so in love with our ever-dissipating large family gatherings, I would have stayed home on Thanksgivings. I always wanted to, but I knew I'd be sorry for missing it when the elders of my family had all passed.

It was hard for me to sit there and watch them pull out the innards of a large bird, then cook, carve, chew, swallow. The smell was wretched. It didn't resemble what it once was, but it did, too. I could no longer see the eyes that once saw haunting images, and I couldn't see the mouth that once cried out in fear and pain. But, I could still see the arms and legs that once begged to move freely and the pink skin that was once covered by gorgeous (but most definitely filthy) feathers. Throughout the years, I would look at the turkeys and imagine the lives they had to endure. I thought about the boredom that surely drove them crazy, the abuse they suffered at the hands of humankind, and their strong will to live. They didn't want to suffer. They didn't want to die.

Being a vegetarian and then a vegan at Thanksgiving was no fun. There was the big reason stated above – the violence –, but I always had a sense of being very alone. That's not an easy thing to feel when I was surrounded by some of the most boisterous and gregarious people I know. No one quite understood why I wouldn't just eat the turkey or the egg and butter filled pies. A lot of them were just waiting for me to outgrow this latest phase. They were sure it would happen, but it never did.

I cared about my family, but I cared about the animals, too. I didn't want them to think I was excluding myself when all that I wanted to do was exclude the criminal slaughter and torture of animals from our plates. Making an effort to be involved, I would bring along a vegan dish to share with everyone. Because it was branded with the vegan stigma, it sat virtually untouched. My dad and my grandma, whom are both open to trying new foods, would be the only ones to try the foods I brought. I loved them for it, but discouraged, I eventually stopped bringing food to share and only brought what I'd need to nourish myself.

Fast forward to last year's Thanksgiving when a huge shift occurred right at our Thanksgiving table. A few months prior, I had started listening to the Our Hen House podcast (amazing, by the way). Listening to them and their awesome guest line-ups renewed my passions that were dimmed somewhat by my apathetic family members in the past. As they talked about the approaching holiday, I felt the solitude-of-years-past creeping up on me, but the activist in me was buzzing. I kept wishing that my family would more open to hearing about veganism and trying new foods. But, I knew how averse to vegan foods they were in the past. I wasn't sure if I should bring up veganism during the holidays or if I should focus my vegan activism elsewhere. After all, loved ones are often the most difficult to reach.

And so, I did what I always did. For myself, I brought a kale salad with toasted hazelnuts, and my mom was so kind to make me ratatouille and a delicious stuffed acorn squash. My vegetarian uncle, who is usually living too far away to make it back for Thanksgiving, was in town and brought a Tofurky for dinner. I was excited to have another meat-abstainer at the table that year. Finally, I wouldn't be the odd person out.

To my surprise, family members were – gasp! – trying all of the vegan foods at the table, including the Tofurky. I think my jaw dropped to the floor for a good hour after I saw that. No words. Incidentally, that was also the first time I had tried a vegan turkey, 12 years after ending my meat-eating habits. 12 years of which I had to endure relentless and unoriginal jokes about me chowing down on Tofurky for Thanksgiving. Funny. 

Some of my family members even asked me nutritional advice instead of asking me where I get my protein. Like many people these days, they've become interested in eating healthier (read: plant-based) options to prevent or remedy modern diseases. Recovering from a serious sickness, I had educated myself in the science of nutrition. I think part of the reason they were interested in talking about my diet was because they saw how well I was doing for myself. While the treatment of turkeys didn't prevent anyone from eating them, guests were choosing to fill part of their plate with vegan foods because of a growing interest in health. It's a start.

Thanksgiving last year taught me some very valuable lessons. For one thing, living by example is so essential, but sometimes people need a little nudge, too. Never stop talking about your passion, especially with people that you love and value. There are so many angles to approach issues from. Keep them all handy, and pick one (or more) that fits the situation. I should have never stopped bringing vegan food to share because you never know if a dish will be appealing to other guests or be a total hit. You never know when people are going to start caring about their health and start cleaning up their diets. When people do make these shifts, we need to be present and prepared. The animals need my voice, and they need yours, too.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of my Thanksgiving tales when I talk about what happened at Thanksgiving this year!

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