When you think about it…what does modern Thanksgiving really celebrate?

Photo by John Eckman/Flickr

Today, the Thanksgiving holiday can have different meanings to different people. For most of us, it is a time for celebrating family and friends (and football). For others, it is a time for volunteering in their community and helping the less fortunate. Somewhere among this is a varied remembrance of traditional harvest festivals, and all the imagery that entails. Most of all, modern Americans associate Thanksgiving with lots of food, particularly seasonal favorites that we think to with child-like nostalgia and excitement. Casseroles, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and bread dressing are all expected to be present, featuring a baked and basted bird as our holiday centerpiece. Ironically, few of these things were fare that the pilgrims  would have enjoyed, and even turkey didn’t become a mainstay of the American holiday table until after major advertising campaigns by the poultry industry following World War II.

Many are surprised to learn of Benjamin Franklin’s disapproval of our choice of the Bald Eagle as national bird, thinking it looked more like a turkey as it was originally drawn on the seal, and preferring the latter. In a 1784 letter to his daughter Sally, he stated:

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Its hard to imagine what Franklin’s reaction might be to learn that our main relationship to the turkey nowadays is as an object of over-consumption during the winter holidays. It isn’t hard to imagine his alarm at seeing the conditions of turkeys raised for food today: birds bred to grow so large so quickly that they cannot fly or even move much on their own (a Broad Breasted White will grow to 35 pounds in 19 weeks, and have been bred to grow 57% larger than they normally would). They are unable to reproduce naturally, and rely instead on artificial insemination methods by humans, without which they would die as a species in one generation. They have their toes and beaks cut off without the use of anesthesia in painful measures that serve to keep the birds from maiming each other in the dark, confined spaces they are kept in by the thousands. Over 46 million turkeys have been raised and killed just for consumption on Thanksgiving day, last year.

The historical legacy of Thanksgiving celebrates abundant harvests, but perhaps our modern celebration of abundance has this backwards. New research reveals that Americans end up wasting a staggering 50-60% of the food that we grow. Further, we use large amounts of grains to fatten Thanksgiving turkeys and other livestock on factory farms; grains that could be better utilized feeding needy humans rather than force-feeding it to animals who aren’t adapted for such foods in their diet anyway.

Turkeys have been shown to recognize each other through the unique qualities of their individual voices, and over twenty distinct turkey vocalizations have been identified. They have also been shown to communicate amongst each other by the way they change the colors of their skins and necks. When you think about it…perhaps the best way to give our thanks for the bounty of the Earth is to appreciate and respect its wonders.

Be an example of compassionate living to your family, friends, and loved ones this holiday by embracing both tradition and taste-buds! Check out these amazing sites below for a slew of vegan and vegetarian recipe ideas and menu plans. Have fun trying something new, or better yet take a conventional favorite and re-imagine it meat-free!

Vegan.com Thanksgiving Holiday Feature 2008 – An entire meal plan; check out the stuffed winter squash! This is a great introduction to  veganizing those mashed potatoes and gravy, etc.

Vegan.com Thanksgiving Holiday Feature 2009 – The Roasted Wheatmeat with Oyster Mushroom and “Sausage” Stuffing makes our mouths water (even if it does have a funny name)! Of course more traditional favorites are to be found.

Meatless Mondays: 15 Vegetarian Thanksgiving Recipes – We can’t wait to try the wild rice pilaf with butternut squash, cranberries, and pecans; the picture of the Seitan Roulade with Sage and Sweet Onion Stuffing blows us away!

VegKitchen Thanksgiving Recipes – A wide collection of recipes sorted by category for quick reference.

VegWeb.com Thanksgiving Category – This user-submitted recipe site is a great source for finding ideas for specific ingredients, or to take ideas from to make your own concoctions.

21 Day Kickstart India – Vegan Cooking Videos - Indian cooking videos galore, for those of you who want to bypass convention this year, or for the simply culinary curious.

Happy Thanksgiving from NHES!

One Response to “When you think about it…what does modern Thanksgiving really celebrate?”

  1. Nancy L Wolf Says:

    thanks for this great article. As a vegetarian I find no great joy in watching everyone eat until they are bloated and brag about it. I always think of the turkeys real plight when I see the little cutsie dishes, knick knacks table cloths etc.
    Today on the news there was a turkey eating contest that literally made me sick and I had to shut off the tv. People in the contest were picking up cooked whole turkeys and eating them with their hands… as fast as possible like crazed people… to win a contest. it was repulsive! And it just validated my feelings. thank you


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