Carnivores vs. Vegetarians: What I Learned from a Decade's Worth of Thanksgiving Meals

Family Matters on 11.22.11
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Not too long ago my Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast partner and I entered the treacherous territory of food politics in the "Don't Eat the Panda" episode. Since it's T-minus to Thanksgiving Day, I've been thinking about the episode, which explores human-animal relationships documented in the book, "Some We Love, Some We Hate and Some We Eat." Turns out that we humans are ass over teakettle when it comes to thinking straight about animals.  

Enter Thanksgiving: the four-hour-plus celebration centering around a 12-pound turkey festooned with stuffing. Add a sprinkle of carnivores and vegetarians, a dram of politics, a dash of food ethics, the sentiment that for some people food equals love (and your refusal to eat that food is a rejection of someone's love), and that turkey in the center of the table could begin to resemble a powder keg.

So how can you avoid being the fuse? Just take a gander at the transgressions below, perpetrated by both vegetarians and carnivores (and, at times, by yours truly in the role of vegetarian) and you can avoid any knuckle-dragging, red-faced outbursts, and concentrate on the larger themes of the holiday: unity and gratitude.

1. Vegetarians: Don't Assume You Will Be Accommodated

Yes you were invited, and presumably the host will provide vegetarian options, but the polite thing to do is to ask if you can bring a dish or two. For some people the Thanksgiving meal is fraught with anxiety, especially those with a perfectionist streak. Volunteering to bring a side or a vegetarian main course is a thoughtful gesture that could be met with a large measure of relief. Just don't bring a Tofurky and expect others to be excited about it, including vegetarians.

2. Carnivores: Do Not Sneak Meat-based Items into the Food and Pass it Off as Vegetarian

If even a nanosize particle of animal fat lands on the tongue of a vegetarian, he or she will know within a millisecond. If someone were to pass off meat or chicken broth as vegetarian, I'd have to assume the person was insulting my intelligence. And then I'd have to tamp down the desire to say something like, "It's vegetarian if you say so, but every time you lie a baby turkey dies." This brings me to the next point.

3. Vegetarians: Do Not Refer to the Turkey As Dead

This includes referring to turkey meat as "flesh" or the turkey as a "carcass." You know and I know that those terms are inflammatory, even if they seem more truthful to you. No one wants to slave over a meal, serve it and then, fork-in-mouth, be told that they're eating flesh. It's rude, and nothing good can come of it. In fact, expect to hear the retort, "Aw, someone doesn't want us to kill Bambi." When Bambi is invoked, you know you've just crossed over into psychological warfare, in which comments are made to suggest that you're an overgrown child.

4. Carnivores: Do Not Taunt the Vegetarians

Sometimes carnivores think it's cute to bring up Bambi, or wave a forkful of meat in front of a vegetarian's face. What that behavior tells me is that the person is worried that he or she is being judged for eating meat and is overcompensating for his or her position on the matter. I can speak for only myself, but I can tell you that I don't care if you eat meat. It's a highly personal choice, and I'm not here to convert you; I'm here to eat a meal. I promise that if you don't get all up in my craw about being a vegetarian that I won't tell you terrible things about the animal product you're eating or the real fate of Bambi. Which leads to ...

5. Vegetarians: The Dinner Table - Especially on Thanksgiving Day - is Not the Place to Talk Food Statistics

I'm sorry to say that when I first became a vegetarian I was so excited to share my findings that I made more than one meat-eating dining companion blanch. Even if Michael Pollen (Omnivore's Dilemma) and Mark Bittman (The Opinionator) - with all of their food ethics education - were dining with you, your meat-trashing-talk could still cause a level of discomfort. Now's not the time to mention that 99 percent of commercially sold turkeys are artificially inseminated because the females' breasts are bred to be so incredibly oversized that they can no longer even position themselves to do the deed on their own. Or the cage conditions. Or the antibiotics. And so on.

6. Carnivores and Vegetarians: Try to Find Common Ground

Let's say that you're a vegetarian and you get asked for the umpteenth time, "Do you just eat cheese and rice all the time?" Followed by: "I could never be a vegetarian." Point out that most carnivores are eating vegetarian half the time, they just don't realize it. When people ask me what I eat I usually describe in mouthwatering detail one of my favorite veggie recipes. In fact, I have one for cassoulet that would make a French butcher tear up at the description of the sweetness of roasted carrots comingling with velvety navy beans, topped with golden olive oil-kissed breadcrumbs.

Let's say you're a carnivore and you really do want to discuss food politics and better understand why we all have a different reaction to animals. Bringing up trends like the Paleo diet or Mark Zuckberg's yearlong quest to eat only animal products that he killed with his own two hands can get everyone to weigh in on food ethics, not to mention the habits of a certain Facebook founder with way too much money and time on his hands.

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