A very P.C. Thanksgiving

Tofurkey is only the beginning

November 13, 2010

Somewhere along the way, Thanksgiving changed.

Once a day of simple adoration of a supermarket turkey roasted in the oven, the cuisine and ethic of the holiday have grown complicated.

Now there is societal pressure to buy a local bird and to inquire about the turkey's upbringing. There is a cacophony of expert advice on how to prepare the bird with recommendations ranging from bathing the raw bird in salt water, to smoking it in a barbecue cooker, to dropping it into a deep fat fryer.

Moreover, an increasing number of vegetarians are saying forget the turkey and God bless the gourds. Then there are the raw fooders who feast on uncooked turnips and on refrigerated, not cooked, pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving, in short, has become as diverse, complex, and quirky as the American family seated around the dining room table.

These days the historians at the table probably have a soft spot for the heritage turkeys, breeds like the Narrragansetts raised at Springfield Farm in Baltimore County. The bloodlines of these pricey, free-ranging birds can be traced back to flocks that frolicked with the Pilgrims.

The locavores in the clan believe in eating locally-grown, broad-breasted white turkeys as well as produce grown in nearby dirt, some saying their lips will touch nothing grown beyond 100 miles from their homes.

A few years ago, the vegetarians in the family would have felt lonely, but lately their ranks are growing; they now number 3.8 percent of Americans, according to Charles Stahler, head of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. Moreover, he says, the turnout and number of dishes are growing each year at the group's annual all-vegetable pot luck supper held in the North Baltimore Mennonite Church in Roland Park the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

There probably won't be many members of the raw food contingent at the typical Baltimore area Thanksgiving table. This group touts the health benefits of eating uncooked fruit and vegetables. But according to Alissa Cohen, a Boston chef and cookbook author who has trained several Baltimore area residents in the techniques of the cuisine, raw fooders dwell among us. Ms. Cohen,43, says she grew up sitting in front of big turkey but changed her eating habits 20 years ago and this Thanksgiving will preside over a 12-course feast of raw foods at her home. In place of the bird, the main entrée, will be "ravioli," thin slices of turnips stuffed with a pureed mixture of vegetables and fruit.

There has also been a change of tone surrounding Thanksgiving as a number of environmental groups have come up with suggestions for how to lessen the impact of the feast. The leading proposition is replacing the turkey with tofu or vegetables, a non-starter for many households. Other guideposts for greening up Thanksgiving are using cloth rather than paper napkins, cleansing dishes in a dishwasher rather than by hand, and decorating the table with natural materials including using dried tree leaves as place cards.

A favorite suggestion — one that seems to capture the contradiction of the day — came from Plano, Texas. There, where many folks deep-fry their Thanksgiving birds, the city collects the spent cooking oil, converts it to biodiesel and uses it to run some city vehicles.

So too in Baltimore. Willie Pearson, the proprietor of Willie P's, a deep fat turkey frying operation on Maine Avenue in West Baltimore, has been recycling his spent cooking oil for years. Once he has met all his orders for Thanksgiving, Mr. Pearson summons Greenlight Biofuels in Beltsville, and the peanut oil that gave hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys a crisp skin is converted into biodiesel.

From brown turkey to green fuel, that is Thanksgiving 2010.

—Rob Kasper

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