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Thanksgiving Vegetariots, or, How Can You Have Any Pudding If You Won’t Eat the Meat?

Newspapers all over the country are sweating to include vegetarian main dishes in their annual Thanksgiving features. But they’re not doing all that well. This week the LA Times food section proudly listed a whole bunch of Thanksgiving vegetable side dishes as if to say, “See how much there is for you vegetarians to eat without your hostess making any changes just for your special status?” Only, as readers quickly pointed out,  1) none of the dishes contained any noticeable protein, 2) most of them were overloaded with butter and salt and 3) two of them contained chicken broth or pancetta. Someone had forgotten to re-edit them for a vegetarian audience.

I pick on my local paper because we’re talking Los Angeles, with great produce available all year round and a very large vegetarian population–and a lot of ethnic groups with significant roles for vegetarian dishes in their traditional cuisines. We have less excuse for this kind of simple ignorance than most cities.

But it isn’t simple ignorance. Running very close to the surface of most food publications’ features on vegetarian fare at the big showdown holidays is a distinct tone of hysteria. How can anyone not want to eat meat? Nothing tastes like turkey, and nothing sells like it either! We don’t know anything about vegetarian proteins! they panic. Do vegetarians eat Durkee Fried Onions or Empress Yams? Do they eat marshmallows? They don’t even like pancetta! What’s wrong with them?

These are home questions for newspapers and food mags, because you know the real survival question is, “How are we going to sell advertising for chickpeas and lentils, for chrissakes?” That probably goes double or more for food shows on tv. If they don’t advertise, they don’t stay on the air.

It’s not like tofu has a big marketing presence in the nation’s newspapers or brand recognition outside of local markets. There are only so many brushed-steel and cherrywood designer kitchens anyone is willing to buy in a down economy, especially once they discover how badly brushed steel shows fingerprints. And cooking mags don’t get a lot of help from PepsiCo and CocaCola, Ralston-Purina or the many cigarette and pharmaceutical companies.

What’s left? Bacon, turkey, and processed food companies featuring starches and microwaveable tv dinners. This might not be such a problem for food pubs if they’d found a way to keep their features a little more independent of their ad base. Bacon is showing up these days as suddenly gourmet in so many inappropriate dishes–ice cream? chocolate bars? popcorn?–precisely because it’s relatively inexpensive, widely available in supermarkets, and sold by a few recognizable national namebrand companies that still advertise reliably in a down market. Young food bloggers who go for it think it’s something new and daring, but you have to wonder whether they realize how hard the commercial food media are pushing it and why.

In any case, the November and December issues or episodes really need to push meat for all they’re worth because American bacon is basically the same everywhere and straight-up turkey isn’t all that popular the rest of the year, and the companies know it. Meanwhile, vegetarianism in all its variations, and with a growing political undercurrent, is gaining ground among younger Americans, or at least those not too obsessed with bacon. What to do?

Apparently the answer is, panic and get mad at the vegetarians for wanting non-meat dishes that are worth something, but try hard not to admit it in front of the camera.

Case in point: a recent Top Chef episode (season six, episode 10. Google it or look for the clips on YouTube like I did so I wouldn’t have to upgrade my media player and take a “short quiz” in order to view it on the Bravo tv web site–who’s got the time?)  in which the Quickfire Challenge was set in Tom Colicchio’s Las Vegas steakhouse. The “cheftestants” were psyched as all get out, roaming the walk-ins and practically nicknaming the ribs or hanger steaks they wanted dibs on.

But the guest of honor was Natalie Portman (I don’t think it’s a spoiler anymore), who announced that she and her dozen-or-so entourage were (gasp) vegetarian. Six out of six contestants immediately announced they knew tons of vegetarian dishes and it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and yet at least five of them started muttering things like that vegetarians weren’t really people, and whining that they were really off their game, and it just wasn’t coming together today. Sounded more like tennis announcers than cooks.

This happens to us too, since we keep kosher and don’t eat the turkey at my in-laws’ not just because it isn’t but also  so that we can eat the rest of the meal, which is usually incredible. We try to be inobtrusive about it but last year the idea of our not sharing the turkey threatened my mother-in-law’s ingrained midwestern good hostess sensibilities to the point of picking fights at the yoga studio the next day just to let off the stress. So the panicked resentment toward vegetarian-leaning guests is more real than most reality tv.

Back to the chefs. The instant they’d entered the walk-in, they started saying things like “identify our proteins” while fondling all the high-quality meat, which they’d been taught in restaurant school was an automatic hit and probably a high-profit item too. Steak sizzles. Ribs rock. Now they couldn’t use the instant hit, technique and imagination were actually going to matter. Also basic knowledge about what constitutes a protein.

The five grumblers were the ones racing around making overly complicated half-assed dishes with a lot of plating and no discernible protein–well, except for the guy who lucked out with a packet of precooked lentils, but then none of the tasters commented, so it’s not likely he did something really creative or delicious with them. One of the others included a grand total of three chickpeas on the plate; another–this the one who said his mother was vegan–tried to foist off undercooked leeks as “symbolic” of protein. Cold comfort.

Not one contestant tried anything like eggs or cheese, even though the judges weren’t vegan. None of them tried pasta or grains. Or tofu. None of them tried anything a vegetarian would be likely to consider substantial. And as far as I could tell the garnishes outweighed the food. If the party hadn’t been a bunch of actresses who don’t actually eat and who weren’t paying their own restaurant bills, they might have been annoyed.

What could the contestants have served as an entrée? If they hadn’t been obsessing over imitation French restaurant-school deconstructed haute, they could have done involtini, grilled eggplant slices rolled around feta and basil with marinara. They could have done crespolini, crêpes filled with either ricotta and turnip greens or butternut squash and sage, and sauced with some of the fancy varietal mushrooms everyone was oohing and aahing over in the walk-in. They could have done a vegetarian moussaka or a lasagne. A quiche. An Ethiopian lentil stew, some kind of soup (asparagus, corn, winter squash), vegetables with gado-gado (assuming they could find both tomatoes and peanut butter in the pantry). A turnover–samosa, calzone, phyllo cigares  or a dosa filled with spiced lentils or spinach and feta, even a coulibiac or Wellington-style dish if they had a sheet of puff pastry. A biryani or couscous.  Steamed dumplings. An asparagus and mushroom omelet or stir-fry. Or if they were daring enough, a soufflé to be dished out tableside. Any of these could have been done, and done fairly well, in about an hour. They just couldn’t have been done “deconstructed” and they’d all look kind of silly in too-tiny portions.

The world’s cuisines are full of good vegetarian protein dishes. The fact that these institutionally trained restaurant chefs seemed to know or remember none of them, not even basic home-cooking ones, is a shame.

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