As the vegetarian mom in a vegetarian family, thanksgiving is not associated with roasted turkey around here.

We all look forward to our traditional feast, which features a big, round, crispy-crusted, golden-brown dome of polenta marbled with savory beans and tangy cheeses.

..The simple ingredients of a our Thanksgiving Polenta Dome

And we ladle rich, flavorful vegetarian gravy over our locally-grown potatoes.

Side dishes?  Don’t get me started!  The Dane County Farmers’ Market moved indoors two weeks ago and is still in full swing.   I am thankful for my farmers market!  I almost hurt myself carrying home its bounty last Saturday.

Gathering and Gratitude

Two of the sensations that make life worth living.  I suspect humans have been throwing feasts of thanksgiving as long as there have been successful hunts and harvests.

If you have been thinking about it, let me urge you to take the plunge and give your thanks without a factory-farmed animal as centerpiece.  Many organizations including Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club are asking us to go green by skipping the white meat.

I base my vegetarian lifestyle and Thanksgiving on three “E”s

Take your pick


There really is no way to pretty it up.  If you eat factory-farmed meat, you are supporting an industry that manufactures misery.

Ask yourself if you really like your body to be made of the suffering of helpless animals and the greed of agribusiness.  This soulless industry has worked hard to convince us that we need meat and lots of it to live the good life. I do fine without.

And then stop and think about the dehumanized existence of the underpaid workers who labor in that hell to bring us our plentiful and cheap meat.  Once you start thinking about it, it’s hard to find a plus side to that slice of white meat on your plate.

On the lighter side (but not really), the President has been “pardoning” a turkey each year since 1947.  He actually pardons two.  These “lucky” birds get to retire to a place called Frying Pan Farm, but because they have been bred to sport those ever-popular but physically unsupportable massive turkey breasts, they evidently die within a year of “natural” causes.


The United Nations, among so many others, has identified factory farming of meat as more damaging to the environment than the entire transportation sector.  I have read so many damning facts about environmental degradation caused by factory farming all over our country and around the world.  Every time I go to my land, I drive past the damage being done to our little valley by my neighbor, who is trying to keep more cows than his land can support.  What are our children going to have to give thanks for if we keep this up?  They won’t be thanking us.


What caused me to cross meat off my grocery list in the first place was reading Diet for a Small Planet and realizing that more people could be well fed from the same amount of earth if we stopped running the sun’s energy through cows, pigs and chickens first.  It has been estimated that the amount of protein lost to humans in this way is equivalent to 90% of the annual world protein deficit.  I know there are some places where producing meat may be the most efficient way to live off a particular piece of land, but in most cases it is far from the best choice.

And personally, my meatless food budget goes farther for the things I really care about like eggs from free-range birds raised by a farmer I trust and family-farmed dairy products, and locally grown potatoes and greens. You can fill in the blanks with your own favorites.

I am thankful to live in a time and place where I have the option of nourishing myself and those I love without meat.  Here and now in the U.S. it is actually cheaper and often easier to be vegetarian.  I never worry about food poisoning, or have to keep my germy meat cutting board separate.  My garbage (with vegetable waste composted) doesn’t stink even on the morning of garbage day.

I am thankful for the great reserves of energy I have as a vegetarian.  I look forward to any physical task and relish doing things under my own steam.  My vegetarian daughters are long-distance runners.  My vegetarian husband bikes 8 miles to work in good weather.

If you want to give thanks without the animal sacrifice in the center of your table, let me share my Thanksgiving recipes with you.


½ c dried beans (you can also use a can of your favorite beans)

6 garlic cloves

5 large sage leaves

1-1/2 c coarse polenta

4-1/2 c water

1-1/2 c grated cheese (your choice – I’m using a local 6-year cheddar)

1 tbs plus 1 tsp oil (I’m using sunflower because I found a local source)

Soak the beans overnight.  Drain and cover with 3 inches water and simmer with garlic and sage till just tender.—should take about an hour.  Add ½ tsp salt after first 30 minutes.  Drain and discard seasonings.  Or, as I said, just open a can.

In a large, heavy pot combine polenta, water and 1-1/2 stp salt.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Then turn down the heat but not the stirring, until thick and pulling away from the sides of the pot.

Stir in the grated cheese, pepper to taste and gently fold in the beans without breaking them.

Spoon it into a round bowl and cool to room temperature.

Turn it out onto a baking sheet and brush with oil you have heated with garlic.

Pop it in the oven and roast it at 375 until it has a crispy, golden-brown surface.  I think that takes about half an hour.

Then slide it onto a platter , slice and serve.

At our house, we turn the lights down before slicing.  Doug heats some brandy in the microwave, then pours it over the dome and lights it with a match.  (I know I don’t have to tell you to be careful not to cause a conflagration with this step.  We don’t want the oohs and ahhs to turn into screams of terror, now do we?)


½ c oil (I used to use olive oil, but now I use sunflower oil because I can get it locally)

½ c chopped onions

1/3 c flour

2 cloves garlic

¼ c chopped parsley

½ c nutritional yeast

¼ c tamari sauce

2 c milk

1+ c water

This is basically a roux with attitude.  Heat oil; add onions and garlic and cook till tender.  Stir in flour and continue stirring for several minutes.  Add yeast, tamari and chopped parsley.

Heat milk in microwave and add slowly while stirring.  Adjust consistency with water till you get the kind of gravy you like best, then blend the whole thing creamy in the food processor.

You can make this the day before and keep it in the fridge.  Reheat just before serving.

Everyone raves about this gravy.  I call it Wheatland Gravy because I first enjoyed it on pan-tried potatoes served up by the Happy Farmer Food Coop at a traditional music festival held every spring in Michigan.  (If you are a Wheatie – Happy Wheatland!)

I am thankful for many wonderful experiences – not the least of which is this mouthwatering gravy.

...Turkeys in the wild enjoying their vitality --just like we enjoy ours. (photo credit: Beaker on Flickr)

9 replies

  1. I agree with your comments on factory farming of meat animals. But going from there to a condemnation of meat in general strikes me as a logical absurdity, especially since you still like to eat eggs.

    We are having a Thanksgiving turkey. But it comes from a local farmer, is an old-time breed, and is definitely NOT factory-farmed animal. I make no apology for eating the bird. It had a good life, albeit short.

    Turkeys in your backyard? A month ago my wife’s brother and wife visited us. They had just arrived when a dozen wild turkeys strolled thru our backyard. How fantastic was that?

    • I tried to be clear that factory farmed meat was my main concern. Unfortunately that constitutes most meat available. Many people probably don’t have your options to find animals raised more humanely.
      Wishing you a very fine Thanksgiving,

    • I know.
      Let he who is without sin …..
      Eating cheese is not ideal. I get my cheese from local producers, including goat cheese from goats raised humanely and with minimum footprint, but I acknowledge it’s not possible to leave no mark.

      I would paint big business cheese, eggs and meat with the same damning brush.
      Cattle are hard on the environment on a number of levels — especially the way big business does it. I suspect a lot less cattle would have to be raised to feed the same number of people with dairy products than with meat.
      And ultimately, it is the shear volume of what we are doing that is damaging.
      I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the majority of people to stop eating meat entirely (especially while it is so cheap), but I do think most people and the planet would be healthier if they ate less meat.
      I put my ideas out there, not as capital T truth, but just to dialog with other people who are thinking about these things too.
      So, thanks for taking your time to comment, Nancy. I hope to hear from you again.

  2. Thank you! Thank you for the gravy recipe. My family goes crazy for the happy farmer potatoes and gravy every year at wheatland. They are going to be so surprised tonight! I can’t wait until they taste it.

    • So happy to oblige, Sarah.
      It is a wonderful gravy at Thanksgiving and any time! I love to serve it on oven-roasted or sauted veggies all year long.

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