Tofu: The Other Holiday Meat

While traveling West on my way to can salmon in Alaska, I stopped in Tacoma, Washington, to stay the night with my aunt and uncle. My cousin had just graduated high school and the graduation party spread was available for post-driving snacks. I excitedly munched the baby carrots and dipped the cut cauliflower and broccoli florets in the dairy-based dip. “Mmmmm,” I said. “This feels just like Christmas dinner!”

Now, naturally the presence of distant-by-land relatives lent something to my feelings of holiday nostalgia. But the perplexed look in my uncle’s furrowed brow begged me to explain further.

“Well, you know, since I don’t eat meat and all,” began my attempt, “I basically eat raw vegetables and dinner rolls at Christmas.”

That seemed to solve the initial confusion, and I have to say that I myself was surprised that these non-traditional foods reminded me of holiday meals. But it’s a fact: My Christmas dinners back home in Omaha were comprised of cut veggies, mashed potatoes sans gravy, some potato chips and, if I’m lucky, potato dumplings with untainted ribbons of sauerkraut.

For all the vegetarian-haters reading this, please let me clear the air. I do not hate nor judge my fellow humans who choose to be omnivores. My status as a vegetarian started in April 1998 when I had a crush on a boy whose ideas I admired, and one of those ideas happened to include not eating meat. I fell for the meat-production-is-bad-for-humans rationale and the I-love-animals logic. Meat is also more expensive and harder on the planet. Plus, my friends are doing it! I figured I was making my junior year history teacher proud; the basis of my newfound vegetarianism had all three essential impetuses when studying human culture: political, economic, and social.

Ten years later, I’m learning just what kind of social impact my vegetarianism has had on my life. Avoiding meat was easy. I thought it was nasty to begin with. Biting into what I imagined were a chicken’s tendons made me want to vomit as a kid, and my mom always used so much ground beef in spaghetti sauce that there was more meat than marinara. The boy, the migrant workers and the environment were more like public excuses for my behavior rather than ethical reasons. Before I officially became a vegetarian, my favorite meal was a bread sandwich. (Replace the two slices of bologna with two slices of bread and forget the condiments.)

I didn’t have to fight temptation because I was never tempted. I did bond with others who didn’t eat meat, getting and giving advice about adapting to the lifestyle, learning vegetarians aren’t alone in this world. Socially and culturally, vegetarianism has led me to a community whose members are typically white, post-punk neo-hippie leftists who dream of traveling abroad and worship other cultures for their otherness. My vegetarianism gave me that community, but it also took one away.

The Dumpling Incident

The little Catholic parish on 22nd and “U” streets that I belonged to while growing up has staked its claim to Internet fame in South Omaha’s Wikipedia entry. (It feels as if my childhood there has now been validated.) The parish is third on the list of Catholic churches that the entry uses as evidence of the area’s cultural diversity, the Czech diaspora being the ethnic group it served.

The cultural diversity of South Omaha—and the once-autonomous town’s very existence—owes everything to meatpacking and the industry that now dominates U.S. agriculture. The Omaha stockyards are within walking distance from the house I grew up in. Established in the 1880s, they closed the year I left for college, 1999, and their stench permeated the air I breathed.

“I smell death in the air,” I would say.

Did Donna Reed ever consider vegetarianism growing up in Denison, Iowa? Did any immigrants rounded up in the Postville or Marshalltown raids swear meat off in resentment? Doubtful. It takes a special impetus to make the vegetarian lifestyle worth sustaining—if your people are doing it, then you’re doing it.

Family documents tell how my great-great grandfather was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, immigrated to the United States when he was nine years old, and worked in the packing house sometime after he graduated Eighth Grade. My aunts and uncles have hosted Czech exchange students, my cousin is moving to the Czech Republic in January, and all the granddaughters between the ages of five and 22 sang a Czech hymn at my grandfather’s funeral this past October.

Four generations in my family attended the grade school run by the parish.  My grandma and grandpa had 10 kids, all of whom went there, and half of them stayed in South Omaha, had three to seven kids of their own, and sent most of us to Assumption, too. I was the second of the fourth generation to graduate from Eighth Grade there. The parish was the cornerstone of my Czech existence.

Each spring we gathered as a family to bake kolaches for our parish’s Czech festival, and each Christmas we’d gather to bake Czech braided bread, houska (picture challah with red and green cherries drifting on a zigzag glaze). Holiday meals also featured a traditional Czech dish, one that made my taste buds whorl around: dumplings and kraut.

One year not too long after I moved to Iowa City for school, I found myself back in Omaha for Christmas dinner, moving in the line from youngest to oldest of the 40-some grandkids and looking anxiously over the rows of baking dishes and patient desserts, always looking forward to the carb-erific comfort of dumplings swimming in sauerkraut.

According to my grandma’s recipe, potato dumplings are made with mashed or instant potatoes, a “large handful of farina,” some extra flour, and an egg to keep it all together. The ingredients are blended and rolled into a long strip, which is then cut into one-inch pieces. Boil those pieces for about 10 minutes and then let them stew in a slow cooker so they soak in the sauerkraut’s vitamin bath. The dumplings’ skins come out shiny, juicy and chewy, and they were the food I looked forward to most at every big family gathering.

I used to go back for seconds of just dumplings, and I once ate 20 dumplings in one night. (I tried to tell myself they were smaller portions than usual.) When I sat down to take my first bite of that Christmas dinner—the first bite, of course, was a bite of a dumpling—my excitement instantly turned to unintended mastication as I spat the dumpling out. This year, they were basted in turkey juice.

To any omnivore I’m sure that sounds delightful—to me, it was traumatic. I can’t remember if the tears flowed right away or if I ran into the other room first. I generally have a policy of not crying in public, and I know I shut down and couldn’t answer the few aunts and uncles who asked “What’s wrong?”

I don’t think I said a thing to anyone the rest of the time I was there, or if I did, I doubt it amounted to more than muffled grunts and downtrodden affirmations signaling I was still present. It was sudden shock and instant depression. I didn’t belong to the family anymore. My ethnic existence was now in question.

Not Complete Without the Meat

Innovation in cooking and food preparation is a blessed thing. Cooking becomes less burdensome and more fun, new ingredients add a splash to the palate, and monotonous dishes experience resurrection. I imagine the act of adding cooked animal flesh or byproduct to a communal dish was originally thought of as a new kick, and a celebration of affluence and ability. Why live like turnip-eating peasants when tonight we can have our kill in each bit of our meal?

Well, I happen to like turnips, but I somehow doubt I would have had much of them if I ate meat. I firmly believe that cooking vegetables without the meat yields more complex flavors—superior flavor, even. Meat and its stewing juices treat vegetables like immigrants to the dish, assimilating them until they have little identity of their own. Meat treats vegetables like the enemy, dividing and conquering them so that they cannot create the flavor bonds necessary to succeed in combat.

Turkey juice cannot simply be brushed aside. Turkey juice must be taken seriously. I am accustomed to bacon in the green beans, sausage in the wild rice, and gelatin in the marshmallow fluff. These are all expected disappointments. It’s kind of like asking Santa for a pony and getting a toy horse instead.

“But at least you can pretend to ride it!” I imagine a hopeful parent telling the disappointed child. At holiday meals catering only to omnivores, at least vegetarians can pretend to be happy.

Food Is Love

Last Thanksgiving was the first holiday where I experienced being full. My boyfriend and I went down to celebrate with his family in Fort Madison, Iowa (his first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian—I had to warn him about the sausage in the rice). Over 40 members of his extended clan came to feast—potluck style—at his uncle’s marina along the Mississippi. We brought some dishes, too: a broccoli casserole with melted gruyere, and a tofurky with the accompanying roasted veggies, basted with herbed olive oil.

While waiting for all parties to arrive, at long last I was feeling an excitement unknown since the Dumpling Incident—the holiday meal would again sate my soul. By all means am I a utilitarian vegetarian when it comes to a large group. I ask no special favors and never have, but last year I took my appetite into my own, oven-mitt-wearing hands.

It helped to have someone I cared about share my excitement, however; otherwise I’m not sure I would have gone through the effort. For some reason, fasting on Thanksgiving seems less socially isolating than having an entire tofurky to one’s lonesome.

Potlucks serve as a conduit for communal experiences; one shares a story through sharing the dish they made. “This recipe came from aunt Lucy,” or “My mom made this for us every year before she passed away,” one might hear, and the food’s history will be documented in one’s memory. That recipe ensures the family line a place of love and honor in the community. They won’t be forgotten; they’ll continue to exist when they’re gone.

When it comes to my hometown, I am gone for more than 360 days of the year. The unintentional fasting on Thanksgiving and Christmas now seem like a big part of why going back always felt dreadful. For 10 years, I thought the distance I experienced at holiday meals came from having nothing to say. But last year with our tofurky and broccoli casserole, I had plenty to say: ooooooooh, this food is sooo good!!

Being stuffed after the plentiful vegetarian harvest had its drawbacks. However, I can’t say I prefer previous experiences either. Never again will I be satisfied with a baby-carrots-and-potato-chip Christmas. I think this year, my boyfriend and I will be packing the dog, the cat, the presents, and the turnips and the tempeh.

“I learned how to make this tempeh chorizo after having it at a restaurant and wanting it everyday…” I’ll say. “It goes really well with this vegan gravy my friend made for me once…”

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