There was something about the chicken splayed across his plate that triggered Gene Baur’s gross-out reflex more than 25 years ago. As quickly as you can say “Tofurkey,” the Hollywood native swore off eating meat.
This week, his Farm Sanctuary movement brought veganism to New York’s Tavern on the Green restaurant to prove that Thanksgiving can be decadent without turkey, sausage stuffing and buttery mashed potatoes.
That’s no small feat for someone who once appeared in McDonald’s ads and was known to toss dried noodles doused with butter into the microwave and call it dinner.
“I’m not much of a foodie,” Baur said sheepishly as waiters carried trays of hors d’oeuvres across the thick carpet: tiny pizzas with caramelized onions and figs, but no cheese; fragrant polenta rounds laced with rosemary; potato pancakes with tofu creme fraiche.
For the main course, guests gathered in an opulent dining room beneath a huge spinach-colored chandelier, at tables with brocade tablecloths. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on trees dropping colorful fall leaves and a hedge carved into the shape of a giant gorilla, fist raised and eyes boring into the diners.
“I’m never been here before, so it’s pretty darned cool,” Baur told the crowd as he took in his over-the-top surroundings.
It was an unlikely location for an earthy event such as this, where guests were invited to sponsor Bubbles, Rhonda and other turkeys that had been rescued by Farm Sanctuary and now live on farms in Northern California and upstate New York.
The glittery Central Park institution, which is set to shut its doors Jan. 1, will serve menus fit for carnivores at its final Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. But merging mainstream restaurants with vegan causes is all part of the effort to demystify the movement, said Meredith Turner, a spokeswoman for Farm Sanctuary.
“We love to partner with establishments that aren’t traditionally vegan, to show that there is a growing consumer demand for it,” she said.
For those who want to be in good company with other vegans and vegetarians, Baur is quick to list meat-free celebrities: Lou Reed, performance artist Laurie Anderson, author Jonathan Safran Foer, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons and, according to some, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.
They couldn’t all be there Sunday, but that didn’t dissuade the hundreds of Farm Sanctuary fans who paid $150 each to try 13 no-meat, no-dairy dishes meant to disprove the idea that veganism means rubbery tofu and plywood-like cake.
“Now this is one of those things I might not eat if I didn’t know better,” said Amy Campbell as she eyed a platter that looked like veal but was really seitan with wild mushroom au jus. Her comment underscored one of the biggest changes in the vegan and vegetarian movement: food that so closely resembles meat, it’s hard to be sure it’s not.
Campbell’s aunt, Joan Kyler, who hasn’t eaten meat for 20 years, was recently served a vegetarian meal on an international flight that looked and smelled so much like chicken that she quizzed the flight attendant before eating it.
But it’s still possible to find vegan and vegetarian dishes that fit the worst stereotypes. “Not all recipes are created equal,” Kyler said dryly.
Some relatives simply refuse to join her holiday table when they learn that it will be a non-animal-product experience.
Maybe they fear Tofurkey, the pre-stuffed, football-shaped turkey substitute. Not Laveen Venugopalan, who described Tofurkey as having the consistency of a Nerf ball but tasting delicious.
Venugopalan’s transition to veganism began a few years ago after he read the autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi. If Gandhi could survive on a meat-free diet, Venugopalan figured, so could he.
“At first it was a challenge. But then I realized, wow, I feel a lot better,” said Venugopalan, whose job on Wall Street requires international travel and presents challenges in meat-centric spots such as Frankfurt, Germany, and Warsaw.
“There are only so many French fries you can eat,” Venugopalan said as he ate through the courses at Tavern on the Green -- including salads, tofu scramble, wild rice and cornbread stuffing -- created by chefs from New York’s vegan Candle 79 restaurant.
Across the room, snippets of conversations competed with clinking glasses and silverware.
Liz Cole recalled a relative serving a sauce of mayonnaise dotted with bacon chips, as if “cutting the meat into little pieces somehow made it vegetarian.”
Campbell confessed to hesitating before she wore her faux zebra-hide coat to the event.
Allan Kornberg, who recently gave up his medical practice to become executive director of Farm Sanctuary, said his cholesterol had dropped to 140 since he adopted a vegan diet. “I may get hit by a car on the way out of this building, but I won’t have a heart attack,” he said cheerfully.
Baur said the goal of Farm Sanctuary is not to judge people but to get them to eat according to their values. Since most people don’t believe in harming animals, it follows that most would not eat them if they had alternatives, he said, giving the USDA and the Obama White House points for encouraging such things as community gardens.
But there’s still a long way to go, said Baur, who plans to spend Thanksgiving at Farm Sanctuary events in Arizona “eating all kinds of vegan food,” much of it traditional holiday fare.
“Everything,” he said, “except the dead turkey.”