My family has a Thanksgiving tradition.
“What’s that?” someone will ask me as I sit at the table with my plate of tofu and kale with nutritional yeast. These words come naturally, not out of genuine curiosity, but with an expression on my face that suggests I dropped a stink bomb. Then, in keeping with the Christmas spirit, someone else will make a joke about how they’re glad they don’t have what I’m having and, like a Hollywood movie, hilarity ensues.
I am not alone. Countless people who don’t, or can’t (or both), eat traditional Thanksgiving foods like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie will be the butt of jokes when families gather around the kitchen. table on Thursday. But if you’re the one throwing the food insults, consider how your comments make others feel. Or at least invent better material than my relatives.
While I don’t need my family to know the difference between seitan and tempeh, I do need, to quote Otis Redding, a little respect.
I’m not offended that I’m vegan or that, in 2022, tofu and kale aren’t as weird as they were when I went vegetarian on Thanksgiving 1997. (Nutritional yeast? Yeah. Maybe that’s still weird.) . I’m offended that my family has been telling the same jokes since “Frasier” was the host of NBC’s Thursday night lineup.
My mouth fakes a smile at the derogatory comments. Hardy har har, that other time, huh? How long has it been since the people who love me make fun of the way I eat and make fun of me about the best decision I will ever make, the most important ethical and political statement I live by every day? Oh yeah, a year, which is ironically how long it’s been since we’ve shared a meal with most of these people around the table.
As the day progresses, there’s another Thanksgiving tradition, an annual event that no one ever sees, one where I don’t answer an insensitive question, like I used to, with an even more insensitive answer. Instead, evil thoughts scroll through my mind, similar to the ticker at the bottom of a cable news network. This, I think, is what they call “growing up.”
This maturation manifests when I move away from rude strangers, but growing up hasn’t been easy. Of course, walking away in public is simple because there’s a whole planet to escape to. Thanksgiving is different. Thanksgiving is private, so the comments fester when I think of the things I might say. I don’t put down the food on my family’s plates, hand out animal rights pamphlets before someone passes the cornbread, or remind anyone how many calories they’re consuming. I don’t mention how Thanksgiving is a day of gluttony (USA!) or that it is an annual reminder of genocide for so many indigenous peoples. No. I remain silent because hiding my emotions from my family is a tradition that I keep 365 days a year.
Maybe I’m being too dramatic. I know that jokes are not bad and my relatives and I get along well. While I don’t need my family to know the difference between seitan and tempeh, I do need, to quote Otis Redding, a little respect. I wish they would understand (or accept) why he couldn’t eat pumpkin pie even if he wasn’t vegan (note: there are a variety of cruelty-free pumpkin pie out there).
It took me about seven years to go from vegetarian to vegan. According to my first endocrinologist, I did well because the greens and vegetables I ate kept me from going into a diabetic coma during a time when I didn’t know I had type 1 diabetes. That diagnosis came eight and a half years ago. People ask if being diabetic is hard. Yes, but not for the reasons most assume. She knew what it meant to eat a restricted diet with a purpose. The difference? Being vegetarian and vegan were choices I made. Being diabetic was a choice made by me.
I get frustrated when comments start, so I want to escape. I have a history with this kind of thing. In 2008 I invented a party called “Vegasmas”.
It’s one thing to choose which foods to eat (see: my reason for going vegan). Another is that they take away your food. That’s the part that hurts and frustrates me, besides my family’s recycled routine, when people joke about my meals. I can’t eat like my family eats or like I used to eat. It’s 2022 and there’s a delicious vegan version of just about everything (except cheese, which is definitely not vegan cheese). Don’t you think I want plant-based stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and red wine?
Eating those things would require more insulin than I’m used to injecting myself with. It would become a not so fun game of how much insulin should I take? Too much, and I’ll become hypoglycemic. My body will sweat, my vision will blur, and it will be hard for me to speak and make decisions. Too little, and I’ll become hyperglycemic. My glucose will skyrocket, causing me to feel sleepy to the point of needing an immediate nap. Extremes in either direction could lead to a trip to the ER, which is no fun on Thanksgiving (or any other day).
Injecting myself with a lot of insulin would mean I would have to eat a certain amount of carbohydrates, but I fill up easily due to diabetic gastroparesis, a stomach condition in which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Nerve damage from high blood sugar can cause those muscles to become sluggish or not work at all. Your stomach is not emptying properly and your food may take a long time to come out of your stomach.” And that?
Or what if pumpkin pie is so good that one slice just isn’t enough? What if I’ve had a long week and I want two glasses of wine? How much more cake or wine do I want? How much more insulin is that?
The remedy for all these “what ifs” is that I avoid foods that require math and eat a creamy soup with hummus and powdered peanut butter for dinner and unsweetened chocolate almond milk for dessert. I haven’t had a drink since February 29, 2019. It’s easier this way.
Ever since I became a vegetarian 25 years ago on Thanksgiving, I feel like that day should somehow belong to me. It doesn’t. I get frustrated when comments start, so I want to escape. I have a history with this kind of thing. In 2008 I invented a party called “Vegasmas”. That’s what it sounded like: going to Las Vegas for Christmas. I arrived on December 24 and got so drunk that I lost my flip phone before leaving the casino where I was staying. It was the best Christmas since I got a Lakers Starter jacket in third grade. Unfortunately, a year a tradition does not make.
I would love to start a new Thanksgiving tradition this year – sitting by the pool in Palm Springs or getting sand between my toes while walking in Malaga Cove would be great. But it’s not happening either. I’ll be with my relatives and the punchline of a joke that was never funny, because that’s my family’s Thanksgiving tradition.