A week from today, like most Americans, I will be joining friends and family for a hearty meal that symbolizes our communal gratitude for all of life’s blessings this year. As we think about the many things we are thankful for, this holiday is also a wonderful opportunity to consider the larger impact of our actions and promise to give back in a mindful and sustainable way.
Luckily, celebrating a green Thanksgiving is not difficult — most of the traditional foods are seasonal and easily obtained locally. And remember, every small effort counts — it’s not necessary to banish every last ingredient that wasn’t obtained within 100 miles! I mean, how could you make a pumpkin pie without cinnamon? Regardless, choosing local products whenever possible, cooking with real ingredients, and insisting on humanely raised meats makes a difference in creating a healthier, cleaner, kinder world.
Mr. R and I spend each Thanksgiving with his family, and thus, while we love to help out, we usually defer to their traditions. As much as I enjoy food and cooking, however, it is hard not to compare and contrast all the advice, recipes, table settings and menus that pop up in stores, online, and in publications this time of year. I picked up the book The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Ideas to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition by Diane Morgan the other day, unable to resist the absolutely delectable ideas for everything from appetizers to desserts — even table decor. Of course, the most recognizable symbol of Thanksgiving is the turkey.
I am a vegetarian — it is a decision I made long ago for reasons that become less and less clear as time goes on. 🙂 The meat industry has one of the largest ecological footprints imaginable, and here in Maryland, the poultry industry is a particularly egregious source of Chesapeake Bay pollutants. From an ethical standpoint, however, I personally do not have a problem with consuming sustainably and humanely raised animals from local farms that take responsibility for properly managing the waste products. From a health standpoint, free range animals fed a natural diet are less susceptible to disease and do not require routine, non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, saving these drugs from the development of resistant strains of bacteria.
You cannot always trust what you find in your grocery stores — unlike the label “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, “free-range,” “natural” and other eco buzz words have no legal meaning, and can be slapped on the packaging of just about anything without any serious repercussions. That is why it is best to order your turkey directly from a local farm, where you can see the conditions in person and be guaranteed of what you’re purchasing. You’ll also be supporting local farmers and helping to preserve traditional techniques and heirloom varieties.
While this meat may be more expensive, remember that it is taking into account the true cost of meat production to society. Your wallet may save by purchasing industrial meat — but the costs do not disappear. They are just are shifted elsewhere, manifesting as environmental degradation, health problems, and socioeconomic inequality. Not exactly the kind of symbolism I’d like on my Thanksgiving table.
I obviously don’t know much about preparing turkey — though I know that most purists would consider brining to be essential. I do know that many have concerns about sodium intake, and to what extent brining meats adds to our daily sodium totals.
First of all, it is important to remember that only about 10% of the sodium consumed by Americans is added during cooking or at the table. The vast majority is found in processed and pre-made foods (source). If you are making most of your Thanksgiving dishes from scratch, you probably don’t have to worry about exceeding your daily sodium limits (just be careful when using certain premade ingredients such as stock, canned tomatoes, etc. Check the sodium amounts on the nutrition label and choose the ones with the lowest percentages. Making your own low-sodium stock is also fairly easy, not to mention much more flavorful than store-bought). Nonetheless, if you are on a sodium-restricted diet, brining may be something to take into consideration. Here is an article from Cooks Illustrated that explains the results of a lab analysis of sodium content of brined meats. According to this article, on average, one serving of brined meat had about 1/8 teaspoon of salt, which is about 1/8 of the daily recommended maximum.
As a vegetarian, the sides are my main course at Thanksgiving. I was very pleased to see a whole section dedicated to vegetarian dishes in the book mentioned above — from acorn squashes stuffed with veggies and wild rice, pumpkin lasagna, and butternut squash pastitsio. I’ve also made my several of the dishes I’ve posted on this blog for Thanksgiving and other fall family gatherings, including curry spiced butternut squash soup, pasta with roasted brussels sprouts, pasta with kale and lentils, and delicata squash soup.
I am also pretty excited about some of the recipes provided here: Well’s Vegetarian Thanksgiving, which includes a number of dairy and gluten free recipes as well.
So many ingredients are still available locally: all kinds of winter squash, potatoes, greens, broccoli and cabbage, chestnuts…the list goes on. Featuring at least one side dish that highlights local produce would be a wonderful way to show your gratitude for the local farmers who work hard to put food on our tables.
What would Thanksgiving be without pumpkin pie? While most default to using canned pumpkin purée, you can again support your local farmers by getting the real thing. At my farmer’s market last week, one vendor showed me a couple heirloom varieties that are perfect for recipes: cinderella and Australian blue. She said these have much lower fiber and moisture content than your average decorative pumpkin — just cut them apart, remove the seeds, bake them an hour or two until tender, and scoop out the flesh. Moisture content can vary so you may want to cook down the purée before adding it to any recipe.
My husband is truly the baker extraordinaire in my family, and maybe I can coerce him into typing up a guest entry on creating the perfect Thanksgiving pie. Until then, peruse this collection of Thanksgiving pies and tarts — plenty of classic recipes as well as new twists that I can’t wait to try!
Well now I am even more eagerly anticipating the holiday. I hope everyone enjoys a safe, happy and GREEN Thanksgiving this year!