A Traditional Vegan Thanksgiving for One
Local. Organic. Seasonal. Heirloom. Artisanal. Authentic. The discourse of foodie-ism has so saturated our cultural landscape that even the most casual American eater will recognize these as the signs of an edible ideal toward which all contemporary cuisine ought to aspire. But this kind of talk, obsessed as it is with the natural and the real, is popular not because it accurately describes what most of us eat. To the contrary: we consume this kind of talk because it offers the fantasy of escape from our actual diet, composed mostly of complicated industrial crud garnished with marketing bullshit and glazed with Food Networkese. Crème fraîche isn’t something we eat so much as it is a dream we are desperate to believe in.
The culinary clusterfuck in which we find ourselves becomes most obvious come Thanksgiving, when to our list of fetishized food terms we add: tradition. It’d be a truly amateur mistake to think that “tradition” means we can eat at this Thanksgiving what we ate at last Thanksgiving. No, it’s time for something new. Sort of. For sexy food magazines like Bon Appétit and Food and Wine, the Thanksgiving issue is the most important one of the year. If we were all making this year what we made last year, the way we made it last year, this would be the month the food porn industry could take a break, but it does not. The Food Network devotes weeks of programing to the meal. Even NPR’s food-focused radio call-in show The Splendid Tableturns into an all-day exploration of new frontiers in yams, interspersed with callers’ real-time kitchen crises. In other words, Thanksgiving is a big deal in food because “tradition” is less about repeating the past and more about referencing it. Tradition is about reiteration as a space for innovation. It is about continuing a conversation with last year’s menu, not just parroting it.
Tradition is complicated. At Thanksgiving, there will be talk of Pilgrims, even though the Pilgrims couldn’t have eaten anything at all like the big-breasted results of selective breeding lying-in-state on even the most “all-natural” of holiday tables. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book meditating on his own vegetarianism addresses all the usual questions about animal ethics, ecology, nutrition, and so on, and then ends up most profoundly vexed precisely by the question of Thanksgiving: What is to be done about the turkey? When I present my chipotle cranberry relish this year, my guests will think back on the canned-shape cranberry sauce they may or may not have actually eaten as children while appreciating my fresh take on the classic dish; at least that’s what Gourmet’s editorial staff has led me to believe. Only my foodiest of friends will recognize that I’m somewhat behind the trend; it was 2009 when everyone was trying sweet/spicy cranberry relishes and chipotle-infused-everything; 2012 is the year of fruit-on-fruit action. See this year’s recipes for Cranberry-Orange Relish with Mint in Bon Appétit; Cranberry-Clementine Sauce in Food Network Magazine; Orange-Maple Cranberry Sauce in Fine Cooking; Dried-Cranberry-and-Apricot Compote in Everyday Food; Cranberry Sauce with Cassis and Dried Cherries from Cooking Light, etc. (This year, I am thankful for the tireless food bloggers who have done the work of cataloging and testing all the new recipes in advance of the big day.)
The situation is, in a word, complicated. Yet somehow in the middle of a postmodern wonderland of endless referentiality, in a pastiche of fractured childhood memories and hyper-mediated moments, among the whirlwind of trendiness and nostalgia, of tradition, of genetically-modified turkeys, you’ve got to decide what to eat. If you want to put all this on a plate, to figure out what our moment tastes like, don’t bother with the free-range organic duck fat truffle butter pumpkin fritters. Instead, I suggest the “Turkeys Love Rye Special Meal” available for a limited time only at Native Foods Cafe. The menu describes the Special as, “a traditional holiday delight that warms your heart and your appetite! Toasted marble rye stacked with warm, thinly-sliced seitan, Native stuffing, cranberry-orange sauce, lettuce and dijon-mayo with a side of mushroom-shallot gravy. Served with your choice of a side!”
With this dish, Native Foods Cafe, a chain of vegan fast-casual eateries, with locations in California, Boulder, Portland, and now Chicago, offers the most honest take on what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving in America. It’s not a Turkey dinner, it’s a turkey sandwich, evoking not the great formal feast, but the slovenly day after — which is to say, the part everyone actually likes. Available exclusively two weeks before the big day, the sandwich is in a number of ways decidedly post-Thanksgiving. It has all the flavors and textures that say Thanksgiving, but it is made of bizarre simulations rather than the real thing. For a generation raised on Mr. Rogers’ everybody-is-special rhetoric, it’s a comfort to think that every turkey is special too; the sandwich lets us believe we might pardon them all. It hints at the idea of seasonality, but like McDonalds’ bright green Shamrock Shake available only around St. Patrick’s Day, that seasonality is limited by marketing tactics, not the weather or the fertility of the soil. It is a vegetarian meal with few discernible vegetables, offering home-cooked flavor without the need to cook at home. There is something undeniably familial about the Thanksgiving meal, but here I was able to have it all while dining alone on a Sunday afternoon, no family required. As a consolation, it was served to me by a young man I’d never seen before who addressed me earnestly as “my friend.” A woman sitting a few tables away, apparently a regular, also enjoying solitude and faux-turkey, was addressed by the server as “my best friend,” — “Can I get you a refill on your water, or maybe some ketchup, my best friend?”
Now this, I thought, is Thanksgiving. This is our take on tradition. It may be for any number of reasons profoundly lamentable, but I have to admit it was delicious.
This Thanksgiving reflection originally appeared here.