Recalling My First Thanksgiving as a Vegetarian

I stopped eating meat in the first few weeks of my first year of college. I had been vegetarian for a few short stints throughout high school, but after moving away from home, I made the decision more permanent.

As an Environmental Analysis major, I consider myself an environmentalist. After moving to California, I believed it was important to reduce my environmental and water use impacts in the ways that I could. There are so many environmental, animal, and human rights issues that are associated with eating meat, and I personally felt that not eating meat would be the right choice for me.

I had briefly told my mom over the phone that I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, but never wanted to have a full conversation with her about changing my diet. A friend from home came to visit Claremont that fall break, and was annoyed when we couldn’t go and get our old favorite meals together.

At the Claremont Colleges, almost everyone knows a vegetarian. At this time in our lives, it's really easy to make those kinds of personal choices. Most students eat in the dining halls, which have ample vegetarian- and vegan-friendly items. And for a lot of people, it's the first time in their lives they are choosing all their meals for themselves. This makes the transition to college the perfect time for a student to make different dietary choices.

After three years now, I am pescatarian. Nearly all of my friends know and understand that. I’ve learned to cook many vegetarian alternatives to our classic family dishes and found things to eat with friends from back home. But the conversation with my family about eating meat wasn’t easy the first time around.

I had wondered for a while how my family would be able to handle this, and Thanksgiving break was the first time I had to address this with my parents. My family was visiting both my great aunt and uncle for Turkey Day, and my mom was worried that my not eating many of the main Thanksgiving foods would be an imposition on the hosts. At college, I could determine my own dietary choices whenever I wanted, but I was back with my family. I considered eating turkey and classic sausage stuffing with everyone else just to avoid having the conversation with all my cousins and aunts and uncles every time they asked if I wanted some. But I didn’t. I had some terrible soy-based meat alternative, Tofurkey, and lots and lots of mashed potatoes and vegetables. My mom asked where I could possibly be getting my protein from if that was what I was always eating.

I know that I am not the only one who has gone through similar experiences talking to their family about changing their diets. I also know that I am incredibly privileged in having the choice to even make a change in my diet. I wanted to talk to another vegetarian about their experiences in interacting with their family for conversations about eating meat.

Cheyenne Brashear PZ ’21 had previously tried being vegetarian for a long time, and after moving away from home she was finally able to make that choice. She noticed her perceived discrepancy of eating meat while still trying to remain environmentally responsible. “I got here and was an autonomous human, and I [felt] like I didn’t really have any more excuses,” she said.

Because Brashear’s dad is vegan, the conversation with her immediate family was much easier. However, she had a hard time explaining herself to her extended family and older generations.

“Especially being a person of color, and especially [as] an indigenous person of color, I feel like there are so many traditional recipes and foods that I just couldn’t reproduce in any honorable way with tofu or soy substitute,” Brashear said. “And so for bigger family gatherings, I am worried … because I wouldn’t want [my family] to alter any of these family recipes to conform to my millennial new age food crazy.”

She explained that Spam is a really big part of Hawaiian culture, but there is no vegetarian substitute for Spam.

Despite not eating some traditional foods she loves, Brashear is looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving and enjoying meat-free dishes with her dad this year. She plans on cooking acorn squash stuffed with quinoa and peppers with lots of different seasonings.

Coming up on my third non-turkey-eating Turkey Day, I’ve learned a lot about how to navigate the conversations and meals themselves better. Most of my family now remembers that I don’t eat meat, and so they’ve stopped offering as often. They’ve become increasingly accepting, as they’ve seen me successfully do Thanksgiving (and many other aspects of life) without meat.

I’ve also learned a lot about food and cooking. Sophomore year, I made my own veggie stuffing and gravy and skipped the meat substitutes. I still ate mountains of potatoes and veggies, but only because I wanted to. This year, I’ll be making my own food as well. It feels great to be able to cook something for myself according to my own dietary restrictions, and it’s fun to contribute to the meal that other family members work hard on, too.

To any new vegetarians worried about going through their first Thanksgiving without turkey, gravy, and stuffing, my biggest advice is to be patient. Your family might not be as happy to begin with, but they will likely become more understanding over time. You also need to be patient with yourself. Understand that choosing not to eat meat is hard when everyone else around you is. The first time you eat Tofurkey while staring at the huge beautiful roast isn’t going to be fun. But, you will learn to cook the kinds of food that both taste good and fit your needs. Each time around will be a little bit better and a little bit easier. ​