The Biracial Vegetarian Who Came to Thanksgiving Dinner
January 18, 2023
Popular belief assumes that being mixed race gives you the ability to feel at home in more than one culture. In The Racism of People Who Love You: Essays on Mixed Race Belonging, Samira K. Mehta writes about how it’s more complicated than that. The flipside shows you can feel just as alienated in those spaces, even when it comes to sharing food. Born to a white American and a South Asian immigrant, Mehta describes in these passages the ways being a vegetarian brings up what it means to belong to (or sometimes not) and to toggle two cultural identities.
I have never worn a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt to Thanksgiving dinner. Clearly, I have thought about doing it, and while I would like to be able to claim that I have not done so because it would be rude or because I have deep-seated reservations about Morrissey, really, I have not done so because I have never been quite enough of a Smiths’ fan to have ever made the jump from buying CDs to buying t-shirts.
Thanksgiving, however, has always been a challenge for me. And it is possible that I wish, on some level, that I had the t-shirt and the ability to be that rude.
I know vegetarians and vegans who have different attitudes toward being the culinary outsiders. Some really do not seem to mind it. I have a friend who has made it through many years in Rome as a lactose intolerant vegetarian who does not drink, and he has yet to complain about anything culinary except for the crappy quality of Italian tea. To be honest, even though I am something of a foodie, I am happy to work around meat in any number of ways. I travel with peanut butter, so that I can navigate communal meals and entire countries that include meat-heavy cuisines. But particularly at Thanksgiving, there is something about the communal meal that feels communion-like. And I mind being excluded. I mind the sense that my extended family is more careful and respectful of people who are gluten-free than they are of my vegetarianism, and that sometimes the gluten-free people are the least respectful of my vegetarianism.* I really mind the amount of work that I end up doing to create a meal that I won’t fully be a part of, and I mind that it goes on for days, as all ten or more of us eat leftovers and people talk about how there is no need to actually cook new food.
One year, I decided that rather than being crabby, I would be proactive. In my family, the meat-based traditions continue on to the day after Thanksgiving, when, for more than a decade, my uncle made a turkey gumbo for the entire family. The gumbo was not as much of a production as the actual Thanksgiving dinner, but it was close. We made homemade stock from the turkey carcass, picking off as much of the meat as possible, to add to the soup later. The stock simmered all night, it had to be strained, and then we made the gumbo. Inevitably, making the roux filled the house with smoke. We had to open doors, letting in the cold, raw November air. It was a production—a big family social event, one that neither I nor the aunt with celiac disease could enjoy. (This aunt is, however, a more laidback person than I am. If she minded, she never let on.) And so I decided to make an entire stock pot of red lentil soup, enough for anyone who wanted some, almost in hopes that my big pot of soup would create a way for me (and my gluten-free aunt) to participate, if not in the communal dish, in the meal, rather than simply microwaving the next round of leftovers.
I made the soup ahead of time and pulled it out once the gumbo was made (and the turkey grease that films the kitchen by the end of the process was scrubbed away). And come time to serve, the two soups sat, side by side, bubbling away on a nice clean stove next to a pot of rice. Each with its own ladle.
One of my non-celiac aunts and I were next to each other, by the stove. She was helping herself to soup and I was getting out spoons, when I watched her take the ladle from the gumbo and pour a serving of gumbo onto the rice in her bowl. I then watched, and somehow did not manage to stop her, as she took the gumbo ladle, dipped it into the lentil soup, and made a parallel stripe of lentil soup alongside.
And all of a sudden, I could no longer eat the soup. It was as unacceptable, as treyf, to me as it would have been if made with a ham bone.
I had an intense (and entirely internal) emotional reaction: I was frustrated. I had planned ahead. I had solved a problem. And I watched my solution evaporate through someone else’s thoughtlessness. I was also furious. I almost cried, I felt so fundamentally disrespected.
My aunt, who had no idea that anything was wrong, turned to me, still holding the meat ladle, and asked if I wanted rice for my lentil soup. I explained that I thought I would have a peanut butter sandwich instead. She was understandably confused—why had I made this big pot of soup? I had to explain that, when she put the ladle into the lentil soup, it had stopped being vegetarian, and so I was no longer comfortable eating it.
“What are you now?” she asked. “Some kind of religious fanatic?”
I stared at her in horror. She had ruined my meal without a thought. And yet somehow I was the difficult one? But it is also interesting that she identified my vegetarianism as being fundamentally religious. That is not how I would have framed what I was doing, but the more I have thought about her response, and my own experience of meat—as food, as raw material, as dead animal—the more I realize that she was seeing something about me that frustrated and baffled her, something that separates me from the relatives (including the vegetarians) on the American side of my family, and something that deeply informs the hows, if not precisely the whys, of my vegetarianism.
Sometimes my killjoy status was really primarily logistical. On my mother’s side of the family, the white side, my vegetarianism was always treated as reasonable, but those logistics still made me a killjoy. I was the person who needed a separate entrée at holiday dinners, and there was always tension. If they made only enough for me, some sort of special treat, I was rude if I did not share or if I objected as my meal was passed around the table—watching as the possibility of seconds evaporated. If they made enough for everyone, it added expense and work to the meal for the hosts, who might have also roasted a turkey. Other times, particularly when I was younger and more the kind of person who might have shown up in a “meat is murder” t-shirt, my killjoy qualities were more likely to come out in comments about animal suffering or environmentalism. But even if I am simply asking that people respect my boundaries and keep their meat spoons out of my vegetarian dishes, as far as my family is concerned, I am something of a problem.
As my family members on the Indian side have become enthusiastic meat eaters with their move to the United States, I have become a killjoy to them as well. Perhaps even more of a killjoy, as my vegetarian presence may serve as a reminder that they are transgressing. An uncle once explained that it is impossible to be vegetarian in the United States, and therefore silly to try (and rude to make them accommodate me). “Even those pastries you are eating,” he commented, “were probably made with lard. There is no way to know!” And honestly, they might well have been, I suppose. As a high school student, I was not yet the kind of vegetarian who would have known or thought to ask, though of course one always can ask. I have always found it weird that my Indian aunts and uncles, several of whom like to harp on all the ways that I am not Indian enough also criticize my vegetarianism, although it is the most Indian thing about me, and this is part of why I understand my vegetarianism as a killjoy problem, in Ahmed’s sense. It reminds everyone that they are doing wrong. It reminded the liberal Unitarians of their ethical failures around animal cruelty and environmentalism. It reminded the Indian relatives that they were being bad Hindus and therefore bad Indians, not so much because they believed strongly in the purity restrictions that govern our caste, but because their choices around assimilation sit uncomfortably with them and because, were she alive, their mother (who likely did believe in purity restrictions and caste) would be disappointed in them.
While I can point to any number of rational reasons for my vegetarianism, and while I am fully aware that the logical extension of these rational reasons is veganism, there is a deeply emotional and instinctive reaction fueling my vegetarianism. I do not want to eat anything that has touched meat. Or really, anything that has been touched by something that has touched meat. When I was in junior high school, my parents realized that we would need a separate grill for my vegetables and veggie burgers. And they got one, building two fires, every time we grilled out, keeping separate tongs and serving plates. And there are two things that are significant about my profound disgust—this sense of meat as contaminating, both of me and of anything that it has touched. First, I never thought about how accommodating my parents were of my insistence on strict separation, and perhaps therefore, I never thought about the fact that not everyone does vegetarianism the way that I do. Second, I never thought about the fact that vegetarianism has not struck me as a sacrifice—in many ways, the revulsion came first, and the justification and reasons came later. Because I do not feel that revulsion towards many dairy products, I continue to eat them, an impulse that is supported by the little I know of Hinduism, in which milk is used to purify. And while that sensibility does not justify my not being a vegan, it goes a certain part of the way toward explaining it.
My aunt identified my rejection of meat and my sense that she had made my soup impure as “religious fanaticism.” While I reject the idea that I am a fanatic, fundamentally, my revulsion at meat has religious qualities to it. My horror at meat, at things that have touched meat, or at the idea of consuming something derived from meat (gelatin, for instance) is, one could argue, religious.
About the Author
Samira K. Mehta is an associate professor of women and gender studies and of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research and teaching focus on the intersections religion, culture, and gender, including the politics of family life and reproduction in the United States. Her first book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Blended Family in America, was a National Jewish book award finalist. Mehta’s current academic book project, God Bless the Pill: Sexuality and Contraception in Tri-Faith America is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. Connect with her online at samiramehta.com and on Twitter @samirakmehta.