November 25, 2010

Breaking tradition without losing it

Derry Ink Link Exclusive
A recent Gentle Thanksgiving at the Marion Gerrish Center focused on giving thanks without turkey,
 including a wheat-based dish, seitan, pictured here.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – As holiday traditions go, Thanksgiving is about as symbolic as it gets – copious amounts of food representing nature's bounty, families finding their way to one another with magnet force just to sit around a table together and give thanks like modern-day Pilgrims for another year of more ups than downs, all enhanced by a constant loop of televised football.
And then there's the turkey.
For more than 400 years this poultry dish has been a persistent presence at the center of the feast. Dumb luck, really, considering wild turkeys were simply prolific enough to be plentiful in 17th-century America, and not terrific at flying away at the sight of a loaded musket.
The Murphys, from left, Emily, Melissa, RJ and Mary,
enjoy a "Gentle Thanksgiving together.
However, times have changed. America has never had so much information about what it eats, how many grams of fiber, fat and cholesterol our food contains, and how corporate farming works. Critics will point to how a monopoly on mass production contributes to resource depletion, and have documented the way animals intended for consumption are propagated, handled and slaughtered, none of it pretty.
Locally, the New Hampshire Animal Rights League is urging the public to rethink what it brings to the table this year, and they are leading by example, having recently hosted a Gentle Thanksgiving feast with all the traditional trimmings – sans turkey.
The spread at the Marion Gerrish Center featured seitan (pronounced say-tahn) roll – the other wheat meat – a food product made from wheat protein and prepared in various ways to mimic the texture and flavor of meat.
About 30 dinner guests contributed dishes, all vegan, from pumpkin soup and several incarnations of sweet potato, to cornbread, stuffing and a number of non-traditional but savory sides.
Emily Murphy of Dover broke gluten-free bread with three of her four other family members during the veganfest, her mom Mary, sister Melissa and brother RJ. Only her dad Ray, the family's hold-out meat eater, abstained.
“He's open to how we eat and trying the food, but he still eats meat,” said Mary Murphy of Bedford. She traditionally serves up a dual Thanksgiving dinner concentrating on the vegan dishes her three children prefer with a side order of poultry, for her favorite meat eater.
“Last year I cooked a local turkey from Twist of Fate, a farm in Dunbarton. But it closed over the summer. I was pretty upset about it. At least I knew they raised their animals with heart,” Mary Murphy said.
Her daughter Emily was the first to eliminate meat from her diet. Her first awakening was back in high school, after learning about veal production. But it wasn't until she watched a 2004 documentary called “Peaceable Kingdom” several years ago that she was able to go meat free without remorse.
NHARL board member Linda Dionne said that while their organization appreciates the more humane treatment of animals on small-scale family farms, their mission is protecting all animals all the time, which means they promote a vegan diet as the most cruelty-free lifestyle.
“We work for animals, and we don't think they want to die or be eaten. Yes, we want people to be vegan, but we also appreciate that it's a gradual process,” said Dionne. “A lot of people start off trying free range chickens and as they learn more about how food is manufactured and processed, it becomes easier to make bigger changes.”
When she gave up meat in 1973 the world was just learning about some of the hazards of factory farming. Thirty years later interest in being better stewards of our food supply have gone mainstream, with tightening up of USDA standards and documentary films such as the 2008 “Food, Inc,” which is bringing more people into the meatless fold, not just on principle, but also because of America's ever-present concern over food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E.coli.
And now, as baby boomers set the pace in lifestyle trending once again, the fullness of mantras like “you are what you eat,” have expanded the market for going green while eating more greens as a lifestyle, turning the traditional food pyramid on its side and relegating proteins and saturated animal fats to a minimized corner, making more room for whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Franklin veterinarian Dr. Barry Taylor attended the vegan dinner with his family, and offered up the pre-meal blessing, which he qualified as more of a rant, touching on a year's worth of local, national political and social ills and shortcomings.
“... So this year when giving thanks, take a second to be grateful for the fact that here in America you can complain – it sets us apart, makes us better; it makes us right. Amen,” said Taylor, who went on to talk about his personal commitment to animals.
“Why am I here? For a vet, that should be fairly obvious. I'd like to convince people not to eat my patients. Animal suffering in modern animal agriculture exists, and if people had to confront that there'd be a lot more vegetarians in this world. Unfortunately, we've become more isolated from the process of how we get our food,” Taylor said.
Kathy Jacques of Londonderry has attended other Gentle Thanksgiving feasts. She likes them because they are a festive way of extending a new idea to people who may otherwise not realize how easy it is to eliminate the turkey while retaining all the goodness and tradition the holiday implies.
“Gentle Thanksgiving doesn't limit what people value – just animal fat. But it's sure hard changing people's habits,” said Jacques.

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