In a recent conversation, a number of friends pondered the correct and polite way to handle vegans at Thanksgiving. Rarely lacking an opinion, I offered my take on the situation, which involved a vegan joining a group of omnivores.
If the host has invited the guest knowing that the guest is a vegan, then I think the host has the responsibility to feed that vegan as well as the other people gathered at the table. It's simple courtesy and pretty much the point of an invitation.
But what if a vegan tags along, perhaps as the "plus one" of an invited guest, which was the case in the situation under discussion? In whose court has the ball landed?
It is wrong, I believe, to expect a host to make last-minute changes to a menu or to whip up something on the spot. Again, this is a matter of simple courtesy. The responsibility rests, I think, with the invited guest, who has an obligation to neither inconvenience the host nor make the vegan uncomfortable.
Work it out in advance and don't make a big deal of it at dinner. Friends should be able to handle this easily.
If possible, the invited guest should give the host a couple of days notice and should also ask the vegan if there are any special arrangements that can be made. If it's a last-minute thing, the vegan should take some responsibility, too, and either offer to discreetly bring something to add to the table or relax dietary restrictions enough that their preferences don't step into the spotlight of the meal.
When it comes to a mixed group planning the meal, it can be but doesn't need to be trickier, as long as everyone is tolerant of their companions' choices. For those who must have turkey or something similar, consider turkey thighs, breasts or both. Another option is to stuff game hens for carnivores and winter squash for vegetarians. Use new olive oil — olio nuovo — in place of butter, make plenty of cranberry relish or salsa and smash oven-roasted potatoes, which have a great natural depth of flavor.
Every meal should include a big salad, and it's a simple matter to ensure that it is acceptable to just about everyone.
With desserts, passions tend to run high. I think the best solution may be to offer a dessert buffet of miniature pies and tarts, fresh seasonal fruit and sorbet.
What I don't do and don't recommend is to attempt to duplicate traditional seasonal dishes using soy, seitan (wheat gluten) and such in place of meat, butter, cream and cheese. You'll never find Tofurky, soy-milk pumpkin pie or soy ice cream on my table, as there are studies that suggest there may be health problems associated with soy, especially with the consumption of large amounts of unfermented soy. Besides, why try to mimic other tastes when there are so many wonderful natural flavors at our fingertips?