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Gobbling up a meatless holiday feast


TO MY way of thinking, two of the most disturbing words in the English language have always been: vegetarian Thanksgiving.

For me, it's not Thanksgiving dinner unless there's a turkey the size of a Mazda Miata in the middle of the table.

And it's not Thanksgiving until everyone eats so much turkey and trimmings that they actually eat themselves into a state of semi-consciousness before staggering out to watch the football game on TV.

As hard as it is to believe, there are people who don't share this particular point of view.

Which is why I found myself the other day in the Valhalla of vegetarianism for this area, the Fresh Fields on Smith Avenue in North Baltimore.

I had come at the invitation of store manager Joe Flueckiger, who agreed to talk about (and let me sample) some dishes vegetarians might prepare on Thanksgiving Day.

Flueckiger himself, by the way, is not one of them, the non-meat-eaters.

Yet he estimates that as many as 30 of the store's 190 employees are vegetarians or vegans, sort of vegetarian extremists who eschew all foods and products made from animals, including leather and dairy products.

Fresh Fields, Flueckiger said, sells three to four times the amount of produce as the conventional supermarket. And since it doesn't sell anything with artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, such as Coke, Doritos and Twinkies - what is this, Afghanistan? - vegetarians and other health-conscious shoppers are drawn here like moths to a flame.

Two turkey substitutes that are huge for vegetarians at Thanksgiving, Flueckiger said, are the UnTurkey and the equally yummy-sounding Tofurkey, both found in the frozen food aisle.

Both are made primarily with wheat gluten and come with stuffing and gravy so "you can have sort of a virtual turkey," Flueckiger said.

The UnTurkey has been around for about three years and is made by a company called Now & Zen. (I know, I know . . . can you stand it? If that's not enough, Now & Zen also puts out a totally vegan knockoff of Cool Whip called Hip Whip.)

The UnTurkey's box says it has a crispy "skin" made of something called "yuba," which is made from soy milk. The Tofurkey is a specially seasoned tofu roast, tofu being "sort of the entree-du-jour for vegetarians," Flueckiger said.(None of this stuff is cheap, either. An UnTurkey dinner that serves 6-8 costs $29.99. If I served that a few times in a row, I'd be looking for a second job driving a cab.)

As it would take too long to cook either the UnTurkey or Tofurkey for sampling, Judy D'Avanzo, the store's marketing specialist, prepared a typical meat-less Thanksgiving meal of mushroom-stuffed, herb-roasted tofu, squash casserole, orange-cranberry sauce and herb-roasted vegetables.

For dessert, there was dairy-free apple pie.

It was time to stop talking and start eating.

The mushroom-stuffed, herb-roasted tofu, developed at the Fresh Fields kitchens in Rockville, didn't do much for me, to be honest.

In the glass case at the Special Foods section, it looks like meat loaf, which I'm not wild about. And while it had a turkey-like consistency, it tasted bland and somewhat artificial.

"Tofu is a wonderful source of protein," Flueckiger said as we ate.

Maybe. But your taste buds would need a defibrillator after a few forkfuls of this stuff.

Everything else about the meal was absolutely delicious. The squash casserole was creamy and spicy, the orange-cranberry sauce was tangy and the roasted vegetables - squash, onion and sweet potato - were full of flavor. The dairy-free apple pie was as good as any pie I've had.

After we ate, Flueckiger asked if I wanted to talk to one of the store's vegetarian employees, to see what kind of a Thanksgiving meal he or she might be having.

So I talked to Crispin Weir, who is 20 and lives in Bolton Hill and has actually been a vegan for four or five years.

Weir said he'd be eating Thanksgiving dinner with his girlfriend and about a dozen friends.

"We'll be making a gluten roast," he said.

"Oh," I said.

"Yeah, you use wheat gluten flour or whole wheat flour," he said.

"Is that right?" I said.

For a moment, there was silence. It's hard for me to continue a conversation after I hear the words "gluten roast."

"Oh, I know it doesn't sound good," Weir said. "We'll season it with soy sauce, orange juice, salt and pepper. Maybe some cumin."

Me, I would need a wheelbarrow-full of cumin thrown in there. And would there be enough left over for gluten roast sandwiches?

But . . . to each his own.

Weir, who pointed out that his black shoes were not made of leather, said he's a vegan for both health and political reasons.

"I do feel a lot healthier . . .," he said. "[And] I sleep better at night, knowing I didn't hurt a person or an animal."

"We're not crazy," he added after a few seconds.

He also added that, despite being a vegan, he works in the cheese section at Fresh Fields.

"I'm also lactose-intolerant, which helps," he said with a smile.(And people wonder whether I make this stuff up.)

Anyway, it was a fun experience, sampling the vegetarian and vegan foods and talking to the nice people at Fresh Fields.

But as I left the store, I pictured the turkey that would be on our table today.

It would probably be even bigger than a Miata this year. More like the size of a Toyota Camry.

I can feel semi-consciousness coming on already.

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