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No-Furkey!

In the freezer case at Whole Foods this month you’ll find big boxes announcing Turtle Island’s Tofurky Feast, Field Roast’s Celebration Roast, and VegeUSA’s Vegan Whole Turkey –this last shaped and glazed brown like a large chicken, drumsticks and all. I’m not sure how I feel about this concept–I thought the idea of being vegetarian when you have enough money for a choice was not only not to eat meat, but not to want to be eating meat either.

Not that I’m against decent vegetarian meat substitutes for Thanksgiving or any other time of the year. As someone who’s kept kosher since my college years, and often in places where there was no kosher meat (or I didn’t have the budget for it), tofu or wheat gluten “mock chicken” have made eating in Chinese restaurants a lot more fun, and the good restaurants make their vegetarian dishes as serious and well-balanced as their meat dishes–sometimes better. But they generally don’t try to disguise them this far or process them this much.

Still, to each her own. But $42.99 for the big VegeUSA box at Whole Foods. The box states that it feeds 25 at 2.5 oz/serving, which is probably enough protein but only about half the volume most adults would expect. And it’s kind of expensive for something that looks very much like a well-browned rubber chicken. What’s in it? I scan the nutrition panel and don’t really notice anything but the sodium–everything else is low or moderate, especially for a holiday meal.

But the salt! 450 mg for the “turkey”–double it to 900 mg if 2.5 oz isn’t enough for you and you want seconds.  1400-plus mg for the stuffing–huh? a whole day’s worth of sodium for one serving of stuffing?  Is it that bad for conventional stuffing mix as well? You’d do better to make your own from scratch.

At this point I didn’t even look at the gravy.

Tofurky isn’t much different–650 mg sodium per serving, including stuffing. Field Roast–in the same range too. They also sell separate tubs of frozen “giblet” gravy.

Of course (full disclosure here), I’ve never actually liked gravy, and I doubt it would really go well with anything tofu, not even tofu in a rubber chicken costume.

Why do I think you could do a better and probably a lot cheaper and more festive vegetarian Thanksgiving with some kind of authentic, fresh-made main dish? Because very clearly you could. Do you want it to taste good? Or do you just want it to look like an imitation turkey?

Of course, the main thing about these frozen concoctions, even the simple cylindrical “roasts”,  is that they look like centerpiece dishes, and there’s really no knocking that desire to serve something impressive and festive and most of all, shareable at Thanksgiving. It’s important. Thanksgiving feasts demand a monument to plenty, and an inedible cornucopia with gourds and Indian corn doesn’t really cut it. Nor does a big pasta salad (although a timbale, as in Big Night…)

Surprisingly–sadly?–enough, very few vegetarian cookbooks, not even the big tomes like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian or Veganomicon, really try for a vegetarian centerpiece dish that looks and feels like an important dish. Mollie Katzen’s title dish from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest is about the only intentionally designed centerpiece vegetarian dish I’ve ever seen. A very long time ago I actually was served this thing once at a friend’s house, with very sadly overcooked broccoli stalks stood upright in a flat casserole of brown rice. Oy, is all I can say. Not a moment of pride. Both Katzen’s and my friend’s cooking improved in later years.

None of the currently hot vegetarian cookbooks out there have an index listing for “Thanksgiving”–very telling. A lot of them have portions for 2 or 4 or just one person. Only vegetarian chili and pasta dishes are intended to serve a crowd of any size.

So vegetarian centerpiece dishes deserve some consideration. Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times blog “The Well” has been edging around this topic for a week or so, but I don’t feel she’s really gotten to the heart of the matter–neither has anyone else. Perhaps it’s because she’s not thinking like a vegetarian?

What makes a dish a centerpiece dish? Think about the turkey, then, or a whole salmon, or a rack of lamb or the like. It’s big. It’s unified–one big item before you cut into it for serving. It’s elegant and impressive. It’s sliceable. It’s savory enough to draw people into the dining room with a sigh of Continue reading

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