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Culinary Curiosities: What’s Thanksgiving Without the Bird?

A naked turkey is not as pretty as a vividly hued squash, but even it is more attractive than a turkey made of tofu. At least in our humble opinion.

For many Americans-—nearly 88 percent—it’s not Thanksgiving without turkey on the table. But what about the other 22 percent? You might think about a crispy roast goose or a festive holiday ham and you’d be right. But there are a growing number of families who are embracing meatless options to put alongside the classic bird or even to feature as the main event. Whether it’s a complete frozen faux-turkey meal or an elaborate stuffed whole squash, the vegetarian additions to a holiday devoted to bounty may require another side table or two.

The Thanksgiving bird has always been flanked by vegetable-based side dishes, but even so, vegetarians sometimes find slim pickings if the stuffing has oysters and the veggies are topped with bacon. And that’s where a classic like Tofurky, a roast made of wheat protein and tofu, comes in.  

Seth Tibbott, a long-time vegetarian who owned a tempeh-making business in Oregon, invented Tofurky after trying for years to create an alternative main dish for Thanksgiving. After a disastrous attempt at a stuffed pumpkin and a tough gluten roast, he and friends Hans and Rhonda Wroble created the Tofurky in 1995. The original roast was large enough to feed up to 10 and featured eight “legs” made from tempeh. But consumer feedback, while positive, called for a smaller and less expensive roast. Today the Tofurkey is sold alone or as a feast with gravy, wishstix (similar to a wishbone) and brownie. More than 3.4 million “roasts” have been sold since 1995 and Tofurky is one of the most recognizable names in meat substitutes.

Tofurky isn’t the only meat replacement these days. For a platter-filing centerpiece, Vegetarian Plus makes a six-pound whole “turkey” that feeds eight to 10 and can be stuffed, just like a real bird. Field Roast makes an en croûte-style roast wrapped in puff pastry, featuring hazelnuts and cranberries. For meat alternative that’s not tofu, seitan or gluten, Quorn makes a turk’y roast of “mycoprotein” which comes from fungus. 

But if a fungus-based meal doesn’t appeal or gluten makes you sick, a return to vegetables could be in order. The veggieducken or squashleekotato, as it’s also known, hit the scene in 2012. Created by Dan Pashman, of the Sporkful podcast for his Cooking Channel web series, Good to Know, the veggieducken is a meatless riff on the turducken: yams stuffed in leeks that are stuffed into a large banana squash. You’ll need some time, patience and good knife skills, but this dish will definitely bring drama to the table.  The hybrid nature of the veggieducken lends itself to experimentation and improvisation. Cooks, with varying amounts of success, have tried a variety of vegetables, spices and flavor profiles, even creating sweet versions.

Thanksgiving does call for some celebratory show at the table. The dishes we choose should reflect the joy and abundance of the holiday. And while tradition is, well, tradition, there should definitely be room for the Tofurky next to the turkey, or an eye-popping veggieducken on grandma’s silver platter. Whatever you decide to serve, enjoy! 

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