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Arts & Life

From mock turkey to lab-based meat, vegetarians have a long history of Thanksgiving alternatives

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If tofurkey or other plant-based foods make up your main course on Thursday, you may be surprised to learn just how long vegetarians have been eating an alternative Thanksgiving dinner.

The Thanksgiving meal has been a lightning rod event for vegetarians for centuries. 

"And it's for two reasons," explained Cornell food historian Adrienne Rose Bitar. "Not only how important meat is to the meal, but also for celebrational gluttony."

The first American vegetarians date back to the 19th century. Many of them were motivated by religious beliefs.

"These earlier versions of vegetarians would reject anything that resembled the scorched carcass of animals," Bitar said. "(They) refuse to eat even something that is purported to look like turkey, or geese, or pork. Rather, (they ate) esthetic, bland, unspiced food because you want to live a pure lifestyle."

In 1894, Ella Kellogg, wife of cornflakes creator John Harvey Kellogg, published a Thanksgiving menu featuring 'mock turkey' made entirely from vegetarian ingredients.

By the early 20th century, there were meatless alternatives such as "vegetary turkey", or "mock goose"; to put it politely, they don't sound as appetizing as today's choices.

"They mainly used a combination of ground nuts and gluten, prepared in a can, sort of gelatinous," Bitar described. "Maybe it wiggled a bit like cat food when you took it out of a can."

We can thank the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s for less of an emphasis on rejecting meat and more of a celebration of vegetables, fruits, and ethnic cuisine from places like China and India.

Bitar says this gourmet, pleasure-seeking attitude was completely absent from the earlier vegetarian movement. Like today, vegetarians in the 60s and 70s were influenced by the awareness that that eating food made from animals took a toll on the earth's resources.

Today, Bitar argued, there's even more of an endeavor to fix a collective problem: the fact that meat is a main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  She said technology may bring lab-grown meat substitutes to future Thanksgiving tables; they’re closer to the real thing than ever before, and may even be palatable to non-vegetarians.

"From here on out, I think there's more of an acceptance towards things like the Impossible Burger or these commercial branded goods because it feeds into the techno utopianism of our time," Bitar said. "We like the idea that we can eat meat without killing animals."

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