The turkey exploded when I stuck it with the serving fork. My Aunt Rita, who has a bad valve in her heart, dove under the table, clutching her blood-thinning pills, as boiling-hot soy-wasabi magma sauce sprayed across the room.
”It’s not so bad!” said my wife, Roni. Our Thanksgiving guests nodded politely at her Pollyannaish reaction and held their noses as the sulfurous smell of scorched seitan filled the kitchen. Burning, gassy blobs of cranberry-tofu stuffing pockmarked the chairs, table, and linens. (I took rounds in the chest, but was protected by my polyester-blend shirt.) The label of the cheap South African zinfandel my Dad bought peeled off and slid into the faux chicken pate, creating a burning-oil-slick texture in the curiously untouched chafing dish. The sweet-and-sour soy meatballs sat in small round heaps, also untouched, like leftover ordnance.
The kids pretended to be wounded by soy shrapnel and draped themselves in dying poses across the furniture. Last year was our first vegetarian Thanksgiving, and both the Pilgrims and the Indians were unhappy.
I poured stiff drinks and triaged the mashed potatoes, letting the tainted half die a merciful death. Uncle Herb helped Roni autopsy the faux-turkey carcass, constructed out of molded seitan, which is made from wheat gluten. Roni painted the outside surface of the imitation bird with a coating of corn-starch-based soy-ginger glaze. The working theory developed that the liquid in the stuffing cavity superheated and the gas exploded when the seal was breached.
Roni, her mother and sister cooked enough side dishes to feed an army, but there was a hole in the center of our celebration–a blackened hole of carbonized soy protein. In the quiet of the cleanup operation, Roni’s Dad asked, “Is that a real pumpkin pie–or is it made from some kind of bean?”
The undercurrent of meat mutiny bubbled to the surface. “Maybe we should order in from Boston Market,” joked my Dad. Roni made a run for the Kasumi knife set, but I distracted her by letting the cat escape out the back door.
“We’re lucky none of the kids were injured,” said Aunt Rita. “You’d never get an ambulance to come out on Thanksgiving.”
“I never saw a turkey explode,” Roni’s mother said. “It’s not natural.”
“It’s all natural,” said A., our eight-year old and the family vegetarian. I wasn’t sure if this was helpful or sarcastic. Eight is a tricky age.
“I saw something on CNN about fake boobs collapsing,” said my Dad. Although this non sequitur was inappropriate, given the presence of A. and our five-year-old triplets, he did hit upon a strange cultural synthesis between fake meat, the fixation on female breasts, and the bland, dry, genetically mutated turkeys that dominate our holidays. What was it about breasts, real or pretend, that crossed so many cultural boundaries?
The pseudo turkey was a noble experiment that veered out of control.
Roni and I come from meat-eaters. My Mom made pepper steak and chicken soup with fertilized chicken egg yolks that are now illegal. Roni’s parents are Eastern European–she grew up eating a variety of meats that make me shudder: Paprika speck (smoked pork fat), grammel (crispy fried pork or duck fat, tucked into a small slice of bread), jellied pig’s feet, calve’s brains with scrambled eggs, jaternice (liver and blood sausage), and, most bizarrely, duck blood and fat in a can that is spread on bread-like butter.
When Roni was pregnant with A., she craved red meat and devoured every cut of steak I offered, as long as it was black and blue. So A. had meat in his blood. When A. was two-years old, we took him to Sparks Steakhouse in New York City and he devoured a filet so neatly and methodically that the captain gave us all free dessert.
After Roni was pregnant with the triplets, she became obsessed by news reports about E. coli, the re-labeling of expired meat by supermarkets, and the atrocious conditions of slaughterhouses. So we switched to organic meat, which meant we paid $9 a pound for chicken raised on a farm with an entertainment director and peer counselors.
We switched to organic milk because of growth hormones. She started buying organic produce, but I refused to pay $10 a pound for organic grapes unless the price included a holistic massage.
Our menus shifted with the latest health scares. When A. was five, however, the shift became more radical. One day A. quizzed me about where hamburgers and chicken nuggets came from. (It’s still something of a mystery to me.) About two weeks later I was carving freshly grilled steak for dinner and saw A. watching me with a look on his face only I could understand.
“You don’t have to eat it,” I said. “It’s OK.” A. smiled and ran off to play. He has been a vegetarian from that moment forward, even though no explanation was ever made. He doesn’t talk about it, try to convert his friends–it’s just part of who he is. He refuses to eat fish and required strenuous convincing to eat eggs; we told him they were unfertilized and hence, not murdered.
A. switched seamlessly to a parallel menu of fake meat–soy dogs, soy burgers, soy sausages, soy chicken patties. One night I was devouring a jerk chicken and began to gag. I was eating flesh whose DNA differed from my own by a fraction of a percentage point. The barbarism of it suddenly seemed less like a joke and more like a terrible form of self-delusion.
Soon I was devouring soy dogs and soy burgers with abandon. Cooked on a hot skillet with onions and peppers and covered with tomato sauce, my soy meat was intensely satisfying. The triplets became intrigued and adopted a half-soy diet.
Two years ago Roni read the first health study linking soy protein to an increase in estrogen, which presents serious health risks, including breast enlargement. She announced an immediate soy embargo.
Without the soy, A. was now confined to a diet of pizza, cereal, and cookies. “He’s the only vegetarian who doesn’t eat fruit or vegetables,” Roni complained. While I briefly panicked about the prospect of breast enlargement for myself and the three boys–another unnatural breast phenomena–I talked Roni down from her hysteria. We subbed next-generation veggie burgers for veggie burgers and kept only the indispensable soy items on the menu.
So the vegetarian Thanksgiving was Roni’s attempt to demonstrate our pride in A.’s quiet commitment to not eating murdered meals. Unfortunately, like most heroic examples, his was impractical given the context of crazed holiday expectations. Even I craved a slice of dry, throat-catching turkey, covered in dark gravy cooked from animal bits best left to scavengers.
This year, Roni is cooking a 20-pound organic turkey, chicken-liver pate, and sausage stuffing. A. and our vegetarian city friends will dine on a brand-new product, Tofurkey. It actually looks tasty. That’s the curious thing about our culture–the fake often replaces the real.
–Bruce Stockler is a media-relations consultant and humorist. He is author of I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets.