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A vegan Thanksgiving dinner

How to encourage plant-based eating on a day devoted to the bird


While my mother was still alive, we had a potluck Thanksgiving dinner one year at her apartment down at the watery end of Hertel Avenue. Barely in my twenties, this was my first time contributing a dish to a family gathering. I wanted to bring something interesting and different. I made a baked tofu dish with garlic, ground mustard, and scallions that I was very proud of. My Aunt Esther’s husband, Uncle Art, was the only person who bothered to put any on his plate. I’m not sure he even ate it; it’s not important. For that alone, I will always love him.


As Thanksgiving 2018 approaches, how can those who prefer to eat vegetarian (nothing that had a mother) or vegan (no eggs, milk, or animal products of any kind) entice those not quite so willing to veer from the expected as my Uncle Art was? Some local vegetarians say it is possible to draw the cynics to the table, leaving them just as satiated and somnambulant as any other year.


Albert Brown is the founder of Buffalo’s annual event VegFest. This summer’s gathering at LaSalle Park featured a day of music, speakers, a 5K run, and, of course, plenty of vegetarian eats. According to Brown, his journey to veganhood has been an unexpected one. “In Texas, where I grew up, all I knew was meat for breakfast, meat for lunch, and meat for dinner,” Brown recalls. “Corn on the cob and white bread counted as vegetables. Oh, and an occasional slice of tomato on a sandwich, maybe.” Brown was also an avid huntsman and trapper, skilled at skinning hides and taxidermy.


At age nineteen, he helped to feed a week-old calf, and everything changed. “After that experience, I could never look at an animal the same. It changed how I saw the whole world.” Brown has been eating green ever since.


Last year, tasked with preparing a meatless Thanksgiving spread for fifty-five people, Brown started with a vegetarian staple called seitan. Sometimes called “wheat meat” or “gluten meat,” this is made with wheat flour that has had all the starch kneaded and washed out of it until what’s left is a pliable lump of protein-rich gluten. Then, it is seasoned in a variety of ways (depending on which type of meat the cook intends to imitate). Brown went all the way and actually sculpted the seitan into the shape of a roasted turkey, drumsticks and all. He then toasted some yuba, a thin skin-like product derived from the making of tofu, and covered the sculpture to give his imitation turkey a crispy skin. The whole process took two days, truly a labor of vegetarian love.


The rest, as they say, was gravy: mushroom gravy. Brown chopped mushrooms, cooked them down in water, onion, vegetable broth, thyme, sage, and margarine, and added flakes of nutritional yeast to give the mixture a cheese sauce-like texture.


Mulled apple cider and homemade cranberry jam accompanied the dinner. And what was the verdict of the fifty-five skeptics in waiting? “They loved it,” Brown says. “Everybody was floored.”


Brown ended the meal with an easily recognizable fall essential: pumpkin pie. As he insists, “You gotta have pumpkin pie. It ain’t Thanksgiving without it.”


Sarah Schneider-Newton and her sister, Eliza, have run the vegetarian restaurant Merge on Delaware Avenue in Allentown for ten years. Sarah began her veggie life at age seventeen. “I never really was much of a meat eater,” she remembers. “I just ate chicken mostly. I took an advanced placement biology class in school and I noticed how much humans look like chickens, how similar our anatomy is. That just didn’t sit well with me.” A vegetarian chef was born.


Schneider-Newton lived for a while in Seattle, then moved back to Buffalo wanting to open a business. A restaurant was a natural choice, since she found there to be hardly any places she could enjoy.


Schneider-Newton’s Thanksgiving menu starts with griddled cakes made with garbanzo beans, onion, celery, carrots, and garlic, held together with olive oil, oat flour, and flaxseed meal. Flaxseeds are an especially oily seed and serve the same binding function as eggs in this recipe. Sautéed on each side, they are a big hit at the restaurant. “They’re hearty, filling, protein packed, and really flavorful,” Schneider-Newton says.


Her vegan pumpkin cheesecake uses oat and pecan flours in the crust, Tofutti brand soy cream cheese, and pumpkin puree. “I tell you, if you spread that cream cheese on a bagel with jam, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Schneider-Newton. “It’s a bit lighter in texture than cheesecake, but the flavor is right there.”


Like Brown, Schneider-Newton also serves a mushroom gravy, but the thickening agent is a sixteen-ounce bottle of light beer. “Usually when I’m cooking, I’m drinking a beer or some wine so, pretty often, some of it gets thrown in,” she notes.


And speaking of spirits, are wine and beer OK for vegetarians? According to the website vegan.com, for the most part, sipping can be animal-free. Some manufacturers use egg whites or gelatin in parts of the processing, however. Look up specific brands on the website.


The bucolic home of Albert the Super cow, the first resident of ASHA Sanctuary, is located fifteen minutes north of Lockport. ASHA president Tracy Murphy quit her job as an assistant vice president at HSBC Bank to follow her heart’s calling: founding a place where visitors can interact with cows, turkeys, and pigs just as they would their beloved family cats or dogs. The Mission of ASHA is to educate people about compassion, as well as the joys of vegetarian eating. Alberts’ Super Kitchen, the outreach leg of ASHA, created faux Buffalo chicken finger subs and sausage hoagies that were sold-out favorites at the 2018 VegFest.


Murphy’s suggestions for a vegan holiday feast includes foods that are super easy for the uninitiated. Gardein brand Meatless Meatballs “are the best thing out there,” she says. “It’s like you’re eating the real thing.” For the protein centerpiece of a festive Thanksgiving, Murphy likes Field Roast’s Grain Meat Celebration Roast which comes oven ready with traditional stuffing and gravy. “It has a meaty texture, no weird taste, and it’s something your guests can sink their teeth into,” she says. Keeping with the theme of easy, Murphy also recommends a run to Happy Cakes Vegan Bakery in Lancaster.


With so many Thanksgiving sides already vegan-friendly, it’s easier than ever to say “No animals were harmed in the making of this dinner.”   


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