Communal holiday feasts to fit all diets
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Chaya Ryvka Diehl, a raw food private chef and kitchen supervisor for Cafe Gratitude, often brings an uncooked dessert to holiday meals and impresses even the carnivores. She never flaunts her diet, though it can prompt a lively discussion.
"Sometimes it's not the most fun conversation," she said. "People want to know what I do and what I'd eat in this or that situation. The skeptics think you need meat to be healthy and to drink milk for calcium."
During the holiday meal, Diehl hopes the meat doesn't come to rest in front of her, but is happy to pass it along to the next person. "Each person is in their own place," she said. "I'm not going to eat the turkey, but it's OK if you do."
What some call the "mixed-diet table" is the norm these days in the Bay Area, home to perhaps the country's most diverse group of eaters. If 20 years ago vegetarians sat down comfortably at the mainstream table, today's guests are likely to acknowledge that they're members of every dining splinter - vegan, raw food-ist, locavore, flexitarian, pescatarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, organic fanatic, allergic to gluten, nuts or lactose.
A new generation of eaters, with more access than ever to information through the Internet, farmers' markets and cooking shows, has become educated and emboldened. Its members know what they want. And they have more choices.
But that does not dispel fear of judgment at holiday dinners, which, to some, can feel like food interventions. There are staunch vegetarians who can't stand to be around meat and meat eaters who equate vegetarians and vegans with food police.
Holidays can be stressful anyway, psychologists warn. Problems that might appear minor at other times can escalate. Bringing a Celebration Roast to your parents' house may seem like an act of hostility instead of a mere attempt to provide a vegetarian alternative.
One San Francisco emigrant, a mostly vegetarian who lives on the East Coast and visits her Midwestern family on Thanksgiving, gripes privately about the casseroles made from frozen shrimp and cream of mushroom soup, the "vegetable oil from some unspecified vegetable" poured on everything, including the turkey, and the creme de menthe pie that tastes like toothpaste.
"It's so unfood-like," she said, requesting anonymity because she doesn't want to offend her relatives, who are quick to raise their eyebrows at her grainy diet. Instead, she adds and eats her own creations. "I try to tip the scale the other way," she said, "by making things with unlimited nuts, leaves and roots."
Supplying a dish you can eat, as long as you ask the host ahead of time, is one suggestion even offered by the Emily Post Institute. Some hosts, though, say they don't alter the menu and expect their picky guests, like the children they raised to try anything, to figure out what they can eat.
But others turn to the growing list of online recipes and resources aimed at "vegetarian diplomacy" or at meat eaters trying to survive a no-flesh feast. Meat Eaters for Vegetarianism, for example, started by a carnivore outnumbered by his "veg head" friends, gives tips to "help meat eaters navigate the sometimes complicated and scary world of vegetarianism."
Abigail Young, associate editor of VegNews Magazine in San Francisco, said her mostly meat-eating family is understanding when she visits Missouri for Christmas. "Veganism first seemed drastic to them," she said. "Some family members thought it was a phase, but now they say, 'OK, she's serious, this is here to stay.' "
Young said she helps cook so there will be options for her. Last Christmas, her 85-year-old grandmother "veganized" for her by substituting flax for eggs. About 3 percent of those responding to a Harris Poll this year identified themselves as vegetarian, an increase from 2.3 percent in a similar poll taken in 2006. Close to twice as many women as men reported they didn't eat meat.
It's much harder to estimate the percentage of people who only occasionally eat meat, eat raw food or follow other dictates. But local foodies, cooks and purveyors of specialty foods say the demand for variety at holidays keeps growing.
The vegetarians have an entire freezer section at San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery Coop during the holidays filled with fake meats, from the Tofurky Feast to the 6-pound Vegetarian Plus roast. ("It's so big it scares the vegetarians," said one store buyer). The meat eaters have can buy classic Butterball, free range, organic, heritage or local birds.
Ann Evans, a consultant on food and agriculture and a former mayor of Davis who co-heads Slow Food Yolo, said she always offers vegetarian dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although she and her husband eat meat, her daughter doesn't, and her nieces are intermittently vegan.
"I like people to know where it comes from and what's in it, the story of what's on the plate and the hands that brought it to them," Evans said. "I know where most of my food comes from. I know who raises the bird."
Varya Simpson, a San Francisco lawyer, buys a roasted Thanksgiving turkey for her meat-eating guests even though she, her husband and children are vegetarian. Her only request: that they take the carcass home.
"In my experience, there is very little animosity between people who have different dietary habits," said Sasha Wizansky, an artist whose interest in the issues surrounding meat inspired her to found Meatpaper magazine. "We've all become accustomed to people with different requirements."
More and more, some of those requirements include food allergies.
Camie Bontaites of Berkeley keeps a handwritten list of her loved ones' dietary needs taped to her refrigerator. She frequently has to cross out items and make amendments.
"I started the list when a friend of mine told us all the things he was allergic to - chickpeas, sesame seeds, chicken," she said. "So I started writing those things down. My friend Matt hated olives. My brother can tell if there's been one pepper in anything. He hates the taste. But now Matt likes olives. And our friend Sarah is allergic to chocolate."
Bontaites herself is omnivorous, but her husband is lactose intolerant and vegetarian, except around exceptionally good meat. He usually eats the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, held with her relatives on the East Coast, who tolerate his mostly vegetarian diet.
"Vegan or raw might elicit some looks," she said. "But non-meat-eating, they seem to roll with that."--
This article appeared on page P - 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle