Turkeys for Thanksgiving -- as friends, not feast

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At Karen Dawn’s Thanksgiving feast, there will be yams and stuffing with cranberries and a dessert of pumpkin-pecan pie, all set out on a table for eight.

And there will be turkeys, two of them actually -- Emily and Bruce (or possibly Brucilla -- it’s a little unclear).


The two 20-pounders will have most of the privileges of Dawn’s other sentient guests -- a Pacific Palisades patio, a view of the ocean and vegetarian nibbles. At Dawn’s vegan holiday dinner, guests will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over live birds. The only turkey plunked down on her table will be Wild Turkey bourbon.

‘It goes beautifully with the hot apple cider,’ Dawn says brightly.

The start of the major food holidays is a challenging time of the year for vegans -- people who swear off using, wearing or eating animal products of any kind, including eggs and dairy products. Although vegetarians technically don’t eat animals, they may eat foods produced from them, including milk, cream, butter and cheese. But those items are banned from vegan diets.

Although vegans tout the environmental and healthful qualities of their way of eating, many adopt the lifestyle for animal welfare reasons. For some, the start of a season in which 65 million turkeys are killed for food in the United States becomes a particularly painful holiday.

‘Seeing a dead turkey on a table is the equivalent of other people seeing a dead dog on a table,’ said Lorri Bauston, a longtime animal welfare advocate and the founder of Animal Acres, a sanctuary in Acton for farm animals.

Not only do animal welfare activists abhor the killing of the birds, they take offense at the traditional ritual of making fun of the bird, even the presidential pardoning of the turkey on the grounds of the White House -- ‘as if the turkey had committed some crime,’ scoffed one.

‘It’s all about eating and the murder of these birds or other animals. I love the idea of giving thanks -- I just don’t like the way we do it,’ said Patty Shenker, who for the third year will be eating her holiday dinner with her family at the vegan Native Foods restaurant in Costa Mesa. ‘Thanksgiving has become a dark day for me.’


Turkeys are smart -- contrary to popular opinion -- companionable and affectionate, animal advocates say. ‘I’m going to introduce them to my neighbors,’ Dawn said. ‘They are going to get the shock of their lives when they see how cuddly, sweet they are.’

On Thanksgiving, vegans will flock together, hosting dinners for like-minded friends or seeking out vegan restaurants. They concoct elaborate and festive celebrations where the only ‘meat’ products are fake ones fashioned out of soy or seitan, which is made from wheat gluten. Dawn will cook her yams with vegan marshmallows because the regular ones have gelatin, which can be made of animals’ hooves.

She uses a butter substitute called Earth Balance and a high-fat soy milk when she cooks. The stock is vegetable, seasoned with herbs. ‘I do all the classic recipes, I just veganize them,’ she said.

She also sets out a big platter of fake meat --’there’s dark soy meat and light seitan.’ However, some also see the holiday season as a time to raise awareness. Bauston’s Animal Acres held a Thanksgiving event with live turkeys that drew 400 people last weekend.

‘Thanksgiving is a very busy time for us in the animal advocacy business,’ she said. ‘I’ll be working. I’ll be talking to people.’

But almost all vegans agree on this: no proselytizing if invited to a meat-eating Thanksgiving meal. ‘If there’s one thing you learn as a vegan,’ said animal welfare advocate Paul Shapiro, chuckling, ‘it’s that dinnertime is typically not fertile ground for outreach.’ When it comes to any dinner table, they live by a ‘do ask, do tell’ policy. ‘I usually don’t have to say anything before someone asks me why I’m not eating the meat,’ said Shapiro, factory farming expert for the Humane Society of the U.S., who helped lead the group’s successful campaign to pass Proposition 2, which outlaws tiny cages for egg-laying hens.


‘I tell them I would rather leave animals off my plate.’ This Thanksgiving he will be dining at the Georgia home of an uncle and an aunt, where he believes turkey will be served -- but no one will expect him to eat it. ‘Most of my family know that I am someone who cares about preventing cruelty to animals,’ said Shapiro, 29, who has been a vegan half his life. ‘If you’re vegan for the animal issue, it’s definitely going to change your social life,’ said Shenker, a vegetarian for 30 years and a vegan since 2001.

Her husband and 19-year-old daughter -- both vegetarians -- go with her to Native Foods. ‘My parents used to have big dinners, and my dad was carving the turkey and I wasn’t eating it,’ Shenker said. ‘My mother lectured me -- how bad it was for me, how rude it was that I would go to someone’s home and not eat what they were serving.’

None of that deterred Shenker. But now, she generally won’t join meat-eaters at a table. Cheri Shankar and her husband, Naren, executive producer of the long-running TV show ‘CSI,’ will be having Thanksgiving at the vegan restaurant Madeleine Bistro in the San Fernando Valley. Shankar’s husband, she said, is ‘an aspiring vegetarian’ who hasn’t eaten turkey in a couple of years.

During his turkey-eating years, his wife would first make him watch a video of abuse at a turkey processing plant. ‘I was really pushing him -- he was eating meat, everything,’ said Shankar, a vegetarian for five years and a vegan for several months. ‘I felt like, ‘What kind of animal advocate am I if I can’t get my husband to be a vegetarian?’ Then one day he said, ‘Guess what, honey? I’m off pork and beef.’ ‘

For animal welfare advocates, the process of raising then slaughtering animals for food is a torturous one. The federal Humane Slaughter Act, which governs how animals are killed, does not protect poultry -- which constitute 95% of animals killed for food. ‘People are shocked when they find out that chickens and turkeys are exempt from the humane laws,’ said Dawn, whose recent book, ‘Thanking the Monkey -- Rethinking The Way We Treat Animals,’ touches on the gruesome details of slaughter.

But on Tuesday, turkeys Bruce and Emily -- purchased for $2 a pound from a live turkey market near downtown L.A. -- were adjusting to a lifetime reprieve in an outdoor coop at Dawn’s home. Dawn washed them in her bathtub and blow-dried them, leaving the 4-month-old birds’ feathers bright white and satiny to the touch. Dawn knelt down and put her arms around Emily. ‘You’re just the cuddliest, aren’t you?’ Dawn said.


The birds, still a bit shy, gurgled back, ‘ooh-ook, ooh-ook.’ (It doesn’t really sound like ‘gobble.’) Emily and Bruce will be retired to Animal Acres on Dec. 14 when Dawn gives a public reading of her book at the sanctuary. ‘Karen, can we come see the turkey?’ asked next-door neighbor Frankie Nieman, who is 5. He and his younger brothers scrambled into the coop to pet the turkeys.

But today, there will be at a traditional dinner with a roasted turkey centerpiece at their celebration. Said the boys’ mother, Roz: ‘It’ll be interesting to see their reaction.’

-- Carla Hall