How to Host a Turkey-Free Thanksgiving

Dear Helena,
My wife and I are vegans. While the rest of my family is not, we nonetheless invited them for Thanksgiving dinner last year. We wanted to prepare as traditional a meal as possible for them without the turkey. Our family accepted and asked what to bring, to which we replied a salad. Then two days before Thanksgiving, we received both a call and an email from my brother and his wife asking if it was OK if they could bring a turkey (the sister-in-law offered to cook it here herself). We were insulted. How was my wife now supposed to prepare a large meal with a glad heart knowing our guests didn’t want to eat our food? They claimed it was “to help us out” and “for their kids to eat.”
—Save the Turkeys

Dear Save the Turkeys,
When you’re a guest in people’s homes, you must respect their wishes and customs. That holds true whether they’re asking you to take your cute boots off at their front door, or to refrain from carrying a slaughtered carcass across the threshold.

That said, to most Americans, being invited to a meatless Thanksgiving is like being tapped for an orgy in a church basement. They look forward all year to the savory smell of bird filling the house, its crisp brown skin, the drippings that get made into gravy, and the leftovers they can enjoy in sandwiches and soup. In other words, this is a special case, and therefore deserves a strategic and proactive communications strategy. You can prevent awkwardness by simply crafting the right invitation.

Be explicit. Explain that there won’t be a turkey, nor do you want there to be. It might seem harsh, but that level of bluntness will hopefully prevent your guests from asking if they can bring one.

Empathize and give an easy out. Say, “I realize that not having a turkey might be a real consideration for meat eaters, so I understand if you need to think about it and get back to me.” And be prepared for rejection. Some guests will decline, insist on hosting, or double-book so they can fill up on turkey at someone else’s house.

Stress the positive. Avoid striking a militant tone, as in, “I don’t want dead animal flesh polluting my house.” Simply explain: “There won’t be a turkey, and I would prefer it if you didn’t bring one, but I will be making X, Y, and Z.” Now is the time to rhapsodize about your chestnut and fig stuffing or some other deliciousness you have planned. Your excitement will be infectious.

Explain that you’ll have traditional elements. When guests fret about there being no turkey, and know they’re going to a vegetarian’s house, sometimes they worry that you’ll serve something like tempeh moussaka while the rest of the nation is having a Norman Rockwell–style feast. They’ll feel much better if you explain that there will be cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. (If you are serving tempeh moussaka, best to let them know that too, of course.)

Offer to let guests bring a side dish. Then they’ll be doubly sure that there will be a familiar food they like. And asking people to help always makes them feel good. If their dish contains dairy or eggs, don’t demur. Your guests are making a sacrifice by giving up turkey. You could start a family feud if you insist they give up butter in their mashed potatoes as well.

Not yet sure about your Thanksgiving menu? Try our Thanksgiving for Beginners, which includes supereasy recipes for the staples, like cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. You decide whether or not to skip the turkey.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.