Create a Happy Thanksgiving Table

Are your guests going to insist on very different foods at Thanksgiving? Make them all happy with a little planning, says the author of "Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore: Dinner for everyone at the table”.

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When your guests insist on very different foods at Thanksgiving, make them all happy with a little planning!

Anna Thomas wrote her first book, The Vegetarian Epicure, when she was a film student at UCLA. It was published in 1973 and became a seminal book on vegetarian cooking. Thomas followed up with The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two; The New Vegetarian Epicure; and Love Soup (a James Beard Award winner). In her new book, Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore, Thomas—who is also a screenwriter—shows how people with different eating styles can dine together peaceably at the same table. We caught up with the author, who lives in Los Angeles and Ojai, CA, to find out more about this vision of happy gatherings.

What’s a good approach for the vegetarian host who’s planning a big gathering of different kinds of eaters?

I faced this problem years ago, hosting Thanksgiving for everyone in my extended family. I figured out a lovely, standalone vegetarian menu that I knew I would love, and that I thought everyone would love—featuring a gorgeous polenta torta with roasted squash and caramelized onions, surrounded by an abundance of interesting vegetable dishes. Really, who wouldn’t love that?

But I also made sure that there were plenty of familiar ingredients and seasonal favorites, like roasted green beans with cipollini, and a cranberry relish. I also made sure that everything would be a good fit with the traditional turkey, which my husband roasted on a spit.

So all the vegetarians had a beautiful meal, no one was picking their way around the edges of the plate, and the folks who felt it wasn’t Thanksgiving without turkey could have turkey plus that feast of flavors. No one felt sidelined; everyone felt included. And that was important to me—to honor the spirit of hospitality. I even included an evolution of this menu in Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore!

How do you plan such a feast?

Start with the food everyone eats and design a delicious vegan or vegetarian meal, but don’t stop there—add that touch of something that fits the flavors for your omnivores. Everyone will feel the welcoming spirit, and you’ll have a lovely party.

Which everyday dishes tend to unify all eaters?

Pizza! Soup! A great pasta or risotto! In the warm-weather climate where I live, a fabulous chopped salad built on layers of grain, vegetables, and possibly legumes. I’d have to scour the earth to find someone who didn’t relish a meal built on one of these options., And everyone I know loves anything that goes with a good chile salsa … and I never have complaints when I put a giant platter of roasted or grilled vegetables on the table.

Different kinds of eaters can be judgmental of each other—how does your new book address that tension?

If the host is inclusive and welcoming, it tends to dissipate all that. When you’re not lecturing people about what they should or shouldn’t eat, but simply offering them a beautiful meal that welcomes everyone at the table, it’s amazing how ready people are to relax and be OK with each other. Action leads the way.

So I offer practical advice about how to plan a meal, single dish, or whole party that can make everyone feel welcome. Prepare a delicious, generous meal, invite everyone, and see what happens. You’ll like it.