Thursday, November 18, 2010

Giving Thanks (Or: Desdemona Does Tofurky)

Looking back on this month's posts, I can't help noticing the preponderance of traditional western "comfort foods" among the recipes: nary a curry or a miso soup in sight. In fact, my partner quipped that in our case, Vegan MoFo might as easily be called MoPo - Vegan Month of Podge - and he's absolutely right (not that he's complaining).

On reflection, I think there are several factors to account for this urge to produce stolid, hearty dishes baked in casseroles and/or amenable to being coated with gravy. The most obvious is the onset of colder weather and earlier sunsets, but there's also the recent loss of my mother, the completion of my MA thesis and degree, the departure of one son for college, and my decision to apply to PhD programs, all of which underscore the transitional nature of this past year.

As an old friend used to say, "we're always going through the changes," and never has that seemed truer than in 2010. My crystal ball has become a snow globe, and while the future is filled with exciting possibilities, the fact remains that it will be awhile before the picture clears, and I have a better sense of how that future will actually look.

So you don't need to be Sigmund Freud to figure out what's going on here, right? Unsettled times lead us to lean more heavily on the elements in our lives that seem most reliable: family, friends, pets, home, hearth, and the things (including food) that we associate with those reassuring touchstones. That this feeling should intensify as the holidays approach is unsurprising, and my hope is that my eldest and youngest sons' birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's - all of which were spent with my mother last year, and from which she will now be conspicuously absent - will have enough pleasant moments to carry us through the more difficult ones, and allow time to reflect thoughtfully on what remains, even as we acknowledge things that have changed.

What does any of this have to do with Tofurky? Well, I've found that many omnivores consider it axiomatic that when "turkey day" comes around, vegetarians and vegans get excited about eating Tofurky; the New Yorker even ran an ad last year (for something wholly unrelated, which I don't remember) featuring a family welcoming their son's herbivorous fiancee into the fold by presenting her with a turkey made of tofu.

Now, I have nothing against Tofurky or other meat analogues, and I like a big plate of ersatz chicken at Grasshopper or the Loving Hut as much as the next girl, but I confess that my approach to vegan holiday meals has just been to cook stuff we like, which generally means all the "usual" stuff, sans the meat. However, during an epic grocery shop with my hilariously funny youngest son - seriously, I should make him come along every time for sheer entertainment value - we spotted a Tofurky in the frozen hippie food section, and somehow the thing wound up in the cart, and from thence (within an hour or two) in the oven.

The whole thing felt a bit silly, but I decided to approach the experience in the spirit of scientific enquiry; I confess that my first thought upon unwrapping the thing was, "What the hell?" For the uninitiated, an uncooked Tofurky resembles nothing so much as a beige, yet-to-be-steamed Christmas pudding, and I feel certain that if Mrs. Bob Cratchit had been with me, she would have recommended we douse it with brandy and set it alight, "like a speckled cannonball...bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."

Instead, I read the singularly unhelpful directions, and quickly determined to blaze my own Tofurky trail, put together a simple marinade/basting sauce in which to bathe the weirdly spherical object, and popped it into the oven. Between bouts of basting, I made some rice pilaf and old-school green beans almondine from the NY Times Cookbook, heated the gravy, and - since cylindrical condiments seem appropriate for a spherical main course - opened up a can of cranberry sauce; by the time the dinner hour rolled around we had a proper mini-facsimile of a "traditional" holiday dinner.

The verdict? It was actually pretty good, and while I'm sure that owed more than a little to my marinade/basting technique, I wouldn't mind repeating the experience every now and again. That said, Tofurky will not be forming the centerpiece of our meals this (or probably any) holiday season; if there is one point on which my extended family is united, it's an insistence on home-made food, particularly for special occasions.

Although my mother never got used to the absence of turkey (or whoever the "main course" happened to be) on my plate, she was happy to tuck into the roasted root vegetables, bread stuffing, and the rest of the "holiday" foods I produce, year after year. Without question, this year's table will have a big, deep, empty space - much larger than the 5' tall woman who ordinarily inhabited it - but the food will still be made by my hands, and those of her other children (and grandchildren), rather than the good people of Turtle Island Foods.

So, what have we learned? Well, maybe that our culture's atavistic attachment to certain foods at certain times of the year can lead us to eschew a sublime white bean cassoulet for a ridiculous (if somewhat yummy) processed food, simply because it rhymes with "turkey." And that the uncertain feelings provoked by the loss of a loved one can make us want to revisit the foodstuffs that make us feel cherished and cared for, be they noodles, casseroles, muffins, and/or pies.

As this more-than-usually demanding holiday season approaches, it feels important to acknowledge what has brought comfort in the past, while figuring out how to negotiate the brave new world of the future. And if the gentle reader - supposing that s/he still is reading - feels like checking out a Tofurky, I highly recommend that you proceed as follows and let me know what you think. Gobble, gobble; and God bless us, every one!

Desdemona's Wacky Tofurky Experiment
Basting Mixture
~ 1/2 cup olive oil
~ 1.5 cups water or vegetable broth
~ 1 tsp. vegetarian stock concentrate (I use Better Than Bouillon)
~ 1 tsp. Liquid Smoke
~ 1 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 1/2 tsp. each: sage, marjoram, thyme
~ A few generous grinds of black pepper

~ 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
~ 2 carrots, cut into 2" pieces
~ 2 stalks celery, chopped into 2" pieces

~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit
~ Place your unwrapped Tofurky in a casserole, the pour the basting mixture over. Ladle the liquid over the top a few times to coat.
~ Add the chopped vegetables, baste the Tofurky a few more times, then cover tightly and cook at 350 degrees for about 2 hours, basting every 30 minutes to prevent it drying out.
~ After 2 hours, uncover, baste again, and raise the heat to 400. Continue cooking another 15-20 minutes, basting every 5 minutes, until browned. Since this was an experiment, I went the whole hog (so to speak) and used the Tofurky "giblet" gravy. It was perfectly serviceable, but next time I'll make my own; use whatever gravy suits your fancy!
~ Serve cut into slices, accompanied by whatever you consider "traditional": mashed potatoes, stuffing, butternut squash, roasted brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, something that incomprehensibly involves marshmallows and/or canned soup...go crazy, and be thankful!


  1. Awesome idea! Count me in as another Vegan who hasn't had Tofurky (except for the lunch meat analog, well and the pizza). I'll have to give it a try some day.

  2. A very beautiful post, and a delicious experiment!

  3. I only had tofurkey once, early in my veganism, and I remember not being impressed, but maybe it's time to give it another go...

    My family really likes these Tofu Turkeys, mostly because the ingredients are so simple.

    It was great to see you two last night--thanks again for the ride!