For Plant-Based Eaters, Veganizing Thanksgiving Is Easy as Pie

Nov. 27, 2019, 5:45 a.m. ·

Rutabaga's cranberry-lentil loaf is their homespun take on the vegan Thanksgiving centerpiece. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

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The holiday season is officially upon us, and so are its classic dishes. For some home cooks who are vegan or vegetarian, Thanksgiving can be a time to flex their culinary creativity, and make the well-loved new.

The sky is dark and cloudy, but inside Rutabaga’s Comfort Food in downtown Lincoln, the light is warm, and it smells like Thanksgiving.

Sara Brown and her kitchen team are bracing for the lunch rush. Though the restaurant opened just two months ago, the dining room already tends to be busy by noon.

“People think all vegans eat are, like, bean patties, and that's just simply not true,” she said.

Brown has spent a lot of time figuring out how to merge a plant-based mission with dishes that feel familiar and decadent. That includes veganizing the Thanksgiving table this year.

Brown and her team are offering a Thanksgiving catering menu that customers can order ahead of time and reheat. They’ll fill over thirty orders for the classics and then some, like the cranberry-lentil loaf.

The dish starts with the all-star aromatic base of Thanksgiving: a classic mirepoix mix of chopped onion, celery, and carrot. Cooking vegetables or “sweating” them helps to release their natural sugars, which deepens and concentrates flavor.

After a few minutes, Brown mixes in some kale and cooks the leaves down to reduce their bitterness.

The vegetable blend is combined with brown rice, cranberries, lentils, and a touch of vegan science — ground up oats and flaxseed — which creates a binding agent similar to an egg white.

Brown has picked up lots of similar tricks since she stopped eating meat a few years back. She grew up eating what she calls the typical Midwestern diet—meat, potatoes, eggs, melted cheese wherever possible.

“So I really had to educate myself and retrain myself on how to cook,” Brown said.

Brown might be pushing boundaries with her plant-based menu, but some rules always stand: cook your vegetables first, folks. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

Designing the plant-based menu at Rutabaga’s posed an extra challenge: finding satisfying plant-based fats to replicate, yet not replace, a dish’s fatty notes.

“Coconut cream is a godsend,” she said.

Brown also leans heavy on alternative milks like soy, almond, and oat for sauces and baked goods. She said we’re living in a good moment for plant-based eating, especially around the holidays.

Bill Shurtleff, who founded the Soy Info Center in northern California, credits Turtle Island Foods with popularizing the first widespread vegan option for the holiday table: the Tofurky.

“People love tofurky,” he said. “They love the funny name, you know, and they love the way it's been marketed, and the story behind it.”

The tofu-based roast hit stores in the mid-90s, and has since sold over five million roasts.

These days, the Tofurky is in good company. The plant-based foods industry is blossoming. According to the Good Food Institute, the plant-based food industry is worth nearly $4.5 billion, with sales climbing 31% over the last two years.

Shurtleff thinks the numbers are related to how products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods advertise to omnivore or newly vegetarian audiences.

“It's aimed at ... vegetarians who are vegetarian for just a little bit,” Shurtleff said. “People who, you know, kind of try it out when they're at a Burger King — I think I'll take one of those meatless burgers and see what it tastes like.”

NET News reporters Christina Stella and Becca Costello stopped by Rutabaga's in downtown Lincoln to see how they make their cranberry-lentil loaf. (Video by Becca Costello)

Nina Gheihman, who studies veganism as a PhD candidate at Harvard University, has found a spike in plant-based product sales. She says it shows a shift in who is buying and marketing them more than how many are choosing to eschew meat.

She thinks newer companies are finding success in omnivore markets by advertising the illusion of eating meat, an experience she thinks most traditional vegans aren’t interested in.

“It's a way of convincing people that actually, we don't need to rely on conventional animal agriculture to produce these products,” Gheihman said. “So it's essentially saying you don’t have to adopt an identity or give up your lifestyle. Instead, you can just consume these products.”

The Tofurky roast is small enough to fit in the oven alongside a bird without causing any drama, and it’s tinged a light brown color — not unlike a roasted turkey.

Shurtleff thinks the imitation holiday roast remains a curious mainstay among many vegans and vegetarians.

“They want a product that they can put on the table that looks and tastes like a turkey.

Some plant-based eaters see an opportunity in passing on the turkey-imitators entirely. Mitchell Allen, a Lincoln native, has been vegan for five years.

Rutabaga's opened two month ago after a year of testing out recipes and hunting for a restaurant location. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel, and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest. Follow Christina on Twitter: @c_c_stella