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Every Thanksgiving my family makes me the butt of the same old joke

Having my vegan diet ridiculed is frustrating for many reasons, but I'm more offended that my relatives can't come with new material after 25 years.
Photo illustration: A tear across a photo of a thanksgiving meal on a table shows green stickers that read,"100% vegan".
Countless people who don’t — or can’t (or both) — eat traditional Thanksgiving food such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie will be the butt of the joke when families gather around the table on Thursday.Anjali Nair / NBC News; Getty Images

My family has a Thanksgiving tradition.

“What is that?” someone will ask as I sit at the table with my plate of tofu and kale with nutritional yeast. These words emerge naturally, not out of genuine curiosity but with a look on their face that suggests I dropped a stink bomb. Then, in keeping with the holiday spirit, someone else will make a joke about how they sure are glad they aren’t having what I’m having and, like a Hollywood film, hilarity ensues.

I’m not alone. Countless people who don’t — or can’t (or both) — eat traditional Thanksgiving food such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie will be the butt of the joke when families gather around the table on Thursday. But if you’re the one throwing the food insults, be mindful of how your comments make others feel. Or, at the least, come up with better material than my relatives.

While I don’t need my family to know the difference between seitan and tempeh, I do need, to quote Otis Redding, a little respect.

I’m not offended because I’m vegan or because, in 2022, tofu and kale aren’t as foreign as when I went vegetarian on Thanksgiving 1997. (Nutritional yeast? Yeah. Maybe that’s still foreign.) I’m offended because my family has been telling the same jokes since “Frasier” anchored NBC’s Thursday night lineup.

My mouth feigns a smile at the disparaging comments. Hardy har har, that one again, huh? How long has it been since people who love me ridicule the way I eat and tease me about the best decision I’ll ever make, the most important ethical and political statement that I live every day? Oh yeah — a year, which is, unironically, the amount of time that’s passed since I’ve shared a meal with most of these people surrounding the table.

As the day progresses, there’s another Thanksgiving tradition, an annual event no one sees, one in which I don’t respond to an insensitive question, like I used to do, with an even more insensitive answer. Instead, the mean thoughts scroll through my mind, similar to the ticker at the bottom of a cable news network. This, I think, is what they call “maturing.”

This maturation manifests itself when I walk away from rude strangers — but growing up hasn’t been easy. Of course, walking away in public is simple because there is an entire planet for me to escape to. Thanksgiving is different. Thanksgiving is private, which is why the comments fester as I think about the things I could say. I don’t disparage the food on my family’s plates, distribute animal-rights flyers before someone passes the cornbread or remind anyone how many calories they’re consuming. I don’t bring up how Thanksgiving is a day of gluttony (U.S.A!) or that it’s an annual reminder of genocide for so many Indigenous people. No. I remain quiet because keeping my emotions from my family is a tradition I observe 365 days a year.

Perhaps I am being overdramatic. I know the jokes are not mean-spirited, and my relatives and I get along well. While I don’t need my family to know the difference between seitan and tempeh, I do need, to quote Otis Redding, a little respect. I’d like for them to understand (or accept) why I couldn’t eat pumpkin pie even if I weren’t vegan (note: an array of cruelty-free pumpkin pies exist). 

It took approximately seven years for me to go from vegetarian to vegan. According to my first endocrinologist, it’s a good thing I did because the greens and vegetables I ate prevented me from going into a diabetic coma during a time when I didn’t know I had type 1 diabetes. That diagnosis came eight-and-half-years ago. People ask if being diabetic is difficult. Yes, but not for the reasons most assume. I knew what it meant to eat a restricted diet with purpose. The difference? Being vegetarian and vegan were choices I made. Being diabetic was a choice made for me.

I get frustrated when the comments begin, which is why I want to escape. I have a history with this sort of thing. In 2008 I invented a holiday called “Vegasmas.”

It’s one thing to choose which foods to consume (see: my reason for going vegan). It’s another to have food taken from you. That’s the part that hurts and frustrates me — other than my family’s recycled routine — when people joke about my meals. I can’t eat the way my family eats or the way I used to eat. It’s 2022, and there is a delicious vegan version of nearly everything (except cheese — definitely not vegan cheese). You don’t think I want plant-based stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and red wine?

Eating those things would require more insulin than I’m accustomed to injecting. It would turn into a not-so-fun game of how much insulin should I take? Too much, and I’ll become hypoglycemic. My body will sweat, my vision will blur and I will struggle to speak and make decisions. Too little, and I will become hyperglycemic. My glucose will spike, causing me to become drowsy to the point of immediately needing a nap. Extremes in either direction could lead to a trip to the emergency room, which is no fun on Thanksgiving (or any day).

Injecting a lot of insulin would mean I’d have to eat a certain amount of carbohydrates, but I get full easily due to diabetic gastroparesis, a stomach condition in which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “nerve damage from high blood sugar can cause those muscles to slow down or not work at all. Your stomach doesn’t empty properly, and your food may take a long time to leave your stomach.” Then what?

Or what if the pumpkin pie is so good one slice isn’t enough? What if I’ve had a long week, and I want two glasses of wine? How much more pie or wine do I want? How much more insulin is that?

The remedy to all of these what-ifs is that I avoid foods that necessitate math and have creamy soup with hummus and powdered peanut butter for dinner and unsweetened chocolate almond milk for dessert. I haven’t had booze since Feb. 29, 2020. It’s just easier this way.

Since I became vegetarian 25 years ago on Thanksgiving, it feels like, in some ways, the day should belong to me. It doesn’t. I get frustrated when the comments begin, which is why I want to escape. I have a history with this sort of thing. In 2008 I invented a holiday called “Vegasmas.” It was how it sounded — going to Las Vegas for Christmas. I arrived on Dec. 24 and got so intoxicated I lost my flip phone before I left the casino where I was staying. It was the best Navidad since I got a Lakers Starter jacket in third grade. Sadly, one year a tradition does not make.

I’d love to start a new Thanksgiving tradition this year: sitting poolside in Palm Springs or getting sand between my toes as I hike at Malaga Cove would be great. But neither is happening. I’ll be with my relatives and a punchline to a joke that never was funny, because that’s my family’s Thanksgiving tradition.