The turkeys were fashionably late.
But this was one Thanksgiving dinner even they could enjoy.
Its sponsors spent nearly 90 minutes Thursday nervously scanning the parking lot at Rancho Park's picnic grounds in West Los Angeles, hoping to catch any sign of the stars of this health-conscious bash.
Suddenly, a faint cheer could be heard from across the picnic grounds. It quickly swelled to a roar and sustained applause worthy of matinee idols.
"Drumstick," a year-old tom, and "Fricassee," a 4-year-old Louisiana redbreast hen, had arrived--riding in their crates like sultans in sedan chairs. They were here for the fifth annual "cruelty-free, cholesterol-free" vegetarian Thanksgiving celebration.
Drumstick had been destined for someone's dinner table on Thursday, said Louie Moonfire of Malibu, the bird's vegetarian owner.
"He is a production model that came from a farm with half a million turkeys that were slaughtered last week," Moonfire said. "I picked him out."
As for Fricassee, well, she is a special bird indeed--"the oldest living turkey in captivity," according to Moonfire. "I raised her from an egg."
The birds were immediate hits and were given free run of the picnic, standing calmly for children and adults to pet them and perching on tables where their fans could admire them.
The crowd of nearly 200 vegetarians--who ranged from toddlers to octogenarians--gathered to celebrate the gospel of meatless diets under sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s that prompted some to strip down to halter tops or T-shirts.
"This dinner is for vegetarians who don't want to go to their friends', family's or neighbors' homes and see a carcass on the table," said Melissa Bergstron, a board member of the Vegetarian Society Inc., another sponsor of the event.
Dining with the health-conscious can have its drawbacks, though, as one man carrying a bag of charcoal briquettes under his arm discovered. He spent a quarter of an hour fruitlessly searching for someone with a match to start his fire.
While the vegetarians' potluck picnic featured tables laden with a dazzling array of salads, fruit dishes, vegetables and juices, more traditional Thanksgiving meals with turkey and all the trimmings were served at missions and shelters across Southern California to thousands of homeless and needy families.
One group of formerly homeless people put on a modest event intended as a sharp counterpoint to the customary mass holiday feedings.
Residents of Genesis I, a self-governing homeless village of geodesic domes just west of Downtown, sponsored their own free Thanksgiving dinner and invited "non-homeless guests," including volunteers and supporters of the project.
The meal, coming on the heels of the first anniversary of the community's opening, was expected to feed several dozen people. "Probably we are the only group . . . where homeless are deliberately and conspicuously feeding non-homeless as well as homeless people," said Ted Hayes, a leader of the 24-resident, privately financed project.
Hayes said he and other residents hoped to "stop this crazy cycle" of huge holiday feeding events. "It continues to generate in the minds of homeless, 'I'm helpless. Woe and pity is me.' "
"It's self-perpetuating," said Hayes, arguing that more small-scale homeless shelters and feeding programs should be developed that encourage self-reliance.
The vegetarians at Los Angeles' Rancho Park embrace that spirit of self-reliance and accepting responsibility, but they said they cannot condone what they see as the ultimate cruelty to animals: eating them.
One woman wore a T-shirt with the lengthy message: "Sad, but true. A meat-centered diet damages health, promotes cruelty to animals, wastes natural resources, pollutes the environment, contributes to world hunger. A plant-based diet provides your family with all the nutrition it requires."
A man who identified himself only as Jingles, "an animal freedom fighter," spread his animal rights buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers and other wares on a blanket.
"Heart attacks: God's Revenge for Eating His Animal Friends," read one of his signs.
"Animal flesh is obtained through violent means," said Marr Nealon, an actress who chairs EarthSave L.A., one of three groups sponsoring the vegetarian picnic. "When one eats what was obtained in a violent way, one tends to project that."
On the other side of town, the message was more basic: food and company for those in need. The Midnight Mission on Skid Row marked the 80th anniversary of its first Thanksgiving dinner. By mid-afternoon, the mission had served nearly 2,000 meals, and a long line of people snaked down the block and around the corner.
"We started in 1914," said the mission's managing director, Clancy Imislund. "An old guy came down here and fed about 20 guys. We've been here ever since."
More than 100 volunteers were involved in serving, as well as preparation of 120 turkeys. "We had to turn away a number of (volunteers), all our shifts were full," Imislund said.
Probably the biggest Thanksgiving feed in the Los Angeles area involved the county jail system, where approximately 20,000 inmates across the county dined on roasted turkey, all the trimmings and pumpkin pie.
A department spokeswoman said the jail staff began preparing the meal three days in advance.
Among those who were expected to take advantage of the holiday fare was O.J. Simpson, awaiting trial on charges that he murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Deputy Fidel Gonzales said the menu for all inmates would be the same.
In Orange County, meanwhile, thousands of hungry celebrants showed up for free Thanksgiving meals at area shelters, restaurants and soup kitchens, where much of the talk centered on cultural and ethnic diversity in light of the recent passage of Proposition 187.
"I'm here to support these kinds of gestures of generosity that cut across the suspicion and hatred that seem to be so apparent these days," Msgr. Jaime Soto, vicar for the Latino community at the Diocese of Orange, told the crowd gathered outside Casa Garcia Mexican Restaurant in Anaheim. Volunteers expected to serve 10,000 turkey dinners there by day's end.
"This is an opportunity for all of us to put that aside for at least one day to be generous with one another and thankful, not only for the gifts we have to share, but for having neighbors to share them with," Soto said.
In addition to the traditionally prepared turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pumpkin pie--all cooked under a tent--restaurant owner Frank Garcia said he was offering an ethnic twist: his special recipe for stuffing made with Mexican tortilla chips, rice and bread.
"Everybody loves it," said Garcia, who's been feeding the needy on Thanksgiving for eight years. "Today I'm eating with everybody and it makes me happy."
That spirit seemed pervasive as volunteers circulated among the ethnically diverse crowd seated at folding tables, offering them drinks of lemonade and punch.
"We volunteer because we have a lot to be thankful for," said Judi Flaherty of Anaheim, who said she's been serving food there for five years. "Thanksgiving is just one day in the year. You can always have your friends and family over, but it's nice to give yourself to your community."
Sitting at a nearby table, Vincente Palacios, an immigrant factory worker from Mexico, smiled broadly as he ate his turkey dinner.
"I like the human warmth," he said. "You can see a lot of people from a lot of different places enjoying the same food. I think it's beautiful."
Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this story.