When a Non-Vegetarian Cook Hosts a Vegetarian Guest

Vegetarians are in the minority, but there are enough of us that you may find one or more on your guest list. Here are some questions you may be asking yourself as you consider your situation at Thanksgiving, one of the most clearly meat-influenced holidays on the American calendar.

Why is this guest vegetarian? There are many reasons to follow a vegetarian diet, ranging from deeply considered, long-held personal beliefs, to a doctor's instructions, food allergies and intolerances, or simply a son's or daughter's rebellion. Sometimes a host or parent takes it as an insult to hear that a vegetarian will be attending a Thanksgiving meal -- or any carefully prepared event -- but please believe me that most vegetarians choose their diet for personal reasons, not because of other people. Instead, try seeing the challenge as an opportunity for conversation, learning about different lifestyles, and sharing recipes.

What is the difference between "vegan" and "vegetarian"? Most vegetarians define themselves as people who won't eat fish, fowl, or meat, but who will eat eggs, cheese, milk, other dairy products, and honey. Most vegans choose to eat no fish, fowl, meat, eggs, and dairy products, and some also exclude honey from their diet. The best way to be sure of your guest's restrictions is to ask; there are variations and exceptions to these categories.

What should I prepare, a tofu turkey? Most vegetarians do not require meat analogues at Thanksgiving. Yes, Thanksgiving is largely about the food. But it's also about family, togetherness, football, and that parade in New York City. Vegetarians will appreciate it a lot if you use some of these ideas:

  • Bake some stuffing outside of the turkey
  • Make a small portion of vegetarian gravy
  • Keep cooking utensils separate to prevent "cross-contamination" between meat foods and vegetarian foods
  • When recipes are adaptable, use substitutions like vegetarian broth, soy margarine (the formulations without whey are suitable for vegans), soy milk, and "EnerG" brand egg replacer (again for vegans). Most kosher marshmallows are not vegan, you'll need to specifically look for vegan marshmallows (don't expect these at the supermarket).
  • Use vegetable oils instead of animal fats for frying, and vegetable shortening like Crisco for pie crust
  • Read ingredients lists carefully on pre-packaged foods, being aware of terms like gelatin, whey, sodium caseinate, and "natural flavors" that can be animal-derived
  • Go crazy with the side dishes, but leave them plain
  • Offer plenty of breads, beverages, fresh fruits, and non-gelatin desserts, which are suitable without modification for most vegetarians
  • Ask your guest if a product like the "Tofurky" brand vegetarian dinner would be welcome, or if the guest would like to prepare and bring one

How do I know what a vegetarian will eat and what they won't? What ingredients are OK? Just ask! A thoughtful guest wants to help you accomodate his or her needs, not cause you trouble. Because there are variations in vegetarian diets (see above), a host can encounter difficulty in planning for a vegetarian guest. You may find that your guest offers to help out in the kitchen or bring a dish from home. Please don't take a dish from home as an insult to your cooking; take it as a desire to share traditions at Thanksgiving.

Can I use regular sugar? I've heard it is filtered through charcoal...

Yes, some sugar is filtered through charcoal, and yes, charcoal is purchased at the cheapest market price. And that sometimes means that although the sugar itself is not an animal product, it may be filtered through charred animal bone before it goes in the bag. It's best to discuss this with your guests. If they are adamantly opposed to the use of regular sugar, use evaporated cane juice crystals (unfiltered sugar). If those are not available where you live, you can substitute maple syrup or corn syrup. These are vegan by everybody's definition.

Keep in mind that using syrup instead of sugar adds a bit more liquid to your recipe, and reduce other liquids to compensate so that the result isn't too runny.

As for confectioner's sugar, you're a bit out of luck there unless you can be certain that the sugar comes from sugar beets. If your guests are picky about the sugar-and-charcoal issue, use alternative toppings - a jar of blackberry jam (usually sweetened with corn syrup, but check the ingredients) makes a swell frosting!

For a more detailed discussion of the issue, see Jo Stepaniak's excellent article on the "is sugar vegan?" question.

How will my guest know what's vegetarian and what isn't? We used to attend a lot of potlucks, and we got into the habit of providing a name and even ingredient list of the dishes we would bring. That's a bit much for Thanksgiving and its numerous, sometimes complex recipes. Consider using place-cards for each serving platter to label each item. Alternatively, if your vegetarian guest helps you out in the kitchen, he or she may not need any accomodation after watching the food being prepared.

I'm concerned that my vegetarian guest won't eat anything I prepare. Ah, vegetarians with attitude. We've all met them (or evolved from them) in the past. As a vegetarian, my opinion is this: It is unspeakably rude for a vegetarian to impose on a host without opening a dialogue before the event and trying to meet the host halfway. It is not reasonable to expect that no meat will be served in someone else's house, or that there will be a "meat table" and a "non-meat table." I think that many vegetarians choose this lifestyle when they are at a point in their lives when conflicts are black and white and there is no room for negotiation -- for instance, in their teenage or early college years. They may even be scrapping for a fight. As the host, you should make some effort to provide filling vegetarian nourishment during Thanksgiving. But I don't think the vegetarian guest should be a jerk about it. Try offering enough food that the vegetarian can't talk for all the eating. The vast majority of vegetarians will welcome your Thanksgiving invitation politely and probably offer to help you meet their requirements.

What's wrong with a little bit of meat or grease on the plate? Most vegetarians prefer not to have their food or utensils touching meat or other animal-derived foods. This preference is similar in concept to keeping kosher. In practical terms, some individuals who have "kept vegetarian" for years may endure significant intestinal distress if they ingest meat or grease. When you're cooking for your vegetarian guest, please keep utensils separate (for instance, do not use the same spoon for deglazing the roasting pan and then serving plain steamed vegetables) and do not label a food "vegetarian" if it includes chicken, beef, or veal broth. A small segment of the vegetarian population prefers to use plates, utensils, and cooking implements that have never touched meat or other animal products; your guest probably does not hold such extreme views, and the polite guest would not impose this requirement on a host.

An individual in my household is strongly opposed to vegetarianism, or is likely to tease or insult the vegetarian guest. This situation can be tough. Although it is not always helpful to examine why someone reacts to a vegetarian in this way, I think that many people who react so strongly to vegetarians do so because they feel insulted, threatened, or defied. Sometimes, arguments over vegetarianism occur because the topic is an easier target than deeper problems in the relationship. But no matter what the reason, angry confrontations at the holidays are hard to live with. Try to gently encourage the confrontational party or parties to have a peaceful holiday. One strategy may be to seat the two individuals at opposite, but not facing, ends of the table. Bring up the issue ahead of time with both parties, separately, and try to come to a solution that will help everyone avoid a fight. Vegetarianism can be a decision as serious as one's religion, or even dictated by one's religion. Accepting an individual's choice to live a vegetarian lifestyle is respectful and promotes harmony.

Above all, please talk with your vegetarian guest! Think of this Thanksgiving as one during which you explore different cooking methods, try new foods, and enjoy interesting conversation. Good luck, and happy Thanksgiving!