Veg Thanksgiving

The Matuson family prepares a dinner of vegan risotto together, in Egg Harbor Township. Pictured from left are Priscilla Matuson, Greg Matuson, five year-old Sydney and seven year-old Ainsley.

Three Thanksgivings ago, Priscilla Matuson's two young daughters tasted turkey for the first time - and they liked it. Matuson, a vegan, was slightly horrified. "I'm over here providing funding to reserve a spot for a turkey on a rescue farm sanctuary every Thanksgiving, and they were eating one," she recalled recently.

Matuson, of Egg Harbor Township, has been a vegan for about a decade, meaning she doesn't eat any animal product whatsoever, including meat, eggs and dairy. Her husband, Greg, has been a vegetarian for about 20 years and a vegan for the past two years, although he'll sometimes still sprinkle Parmesan cheese over his pasta.

A turkey-less Thanksgiving dinner may sound oxymoronic to many Americans, but plant-based diets are becoming increasingly common in the United States.

When the Matusons decided to start a family, they also decided they wouldn't force their children to ban animal consumption. Instead, they would present them with the facts - i.e. eating meat is not much different then eating your sister's leg, as Priscilla viewed it as a child - and they would lead by example, while allowing their children to make their own informed choices.

Despite tasting - and liking - turkey when they were toddlers, their daughters Ainsley, 7, and Sydney, 5, have since also given up meat, dairy and eggs.

When asked what they eat on Thanksgiving, Sydney said, "vegetables and ziti."

"Mashed potatoes," Ainsley added.

The most recent poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, conducted in 2012, found that about 4 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarians, up from 3 percent in 2009. Similarly, a VRG poll conducted in 2010 found that 3 percent of all U.S. youth are vegetarians, and of that group, about 1 percent are vegans.

When the Matuson girls were asked why they follow a vegan diet, Sydney responded "for the animals."

"My girls know I'm very honest with them," Priscilla Matuson said. "I've showed them pictures of the turkeys I adopted at the sanctuary and I explained to them that the turkey on the Thanksgiving table was killed so they could eat it. They know cows are forced to have babies to produce milk and the babies are taken away from their moms so people can eat the boys (as veal). They shouldn't have to have that burden on them, but I want them to know their choices do have an impact."

Christina Martin, a vegan chef instructor and a graduate of Atlantic County Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts, said there's no denying that plant-based diets have become more prevalent in the U.S., and even meat-eaters are consciously eating less meat. But when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, the thought of turning up a nose to turkey seems almost sacrilegious to many people.

"Eating turkey on Thanksgiving is tradition," Martin said, "and people don't like change."

North Cape May resident Penny Beck, a vegetarian for the past 20 years, spends her holiday with her vegetarian friends instead of her meat-eating family to avoid "the dead turkey on the table."

"There are people in my family who would love to get me to eat meat, but that won't happen," Beck said.

Her holiday dinner spread this year will likely include a Tofurky - which is a vegetarian substitute for turkey made with wheat protein and tofu - mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, roasted root vegetables, vegan pumpkin cheesecake and organic wine.

"I have never, ever felt like I am missing out," she said.

Dr. Al Harris and his wife, Alisa, of Ocean View, have been vegans for two years and will host about 20 family members for Thanksgiving dinner this year. They converted to a plant-based diet for health reasons; Al Harris had high cholesterol. Plant-based diet patterns have been associated with improved health conditions, such as lower levels of obesity, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and reduced blood pressure.

Alisa Harris said she will still cook a turkey for her extended family and will make the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes, such as mashed potatoes and stuffing, but she will replace the butter, milk and eggs in the recipes with vegan substitutes.

"They want the traditional fare," she said, "and we have no problem with that."

But she also said she and her husband do try to influence others to change their diets.

"It's been great," Alisa said of being a vegan. "We have spread the word to many of our friends who have given up meat and dairy as well and they also say they feel like whole new people."

The Matusons will be hosting extending family for Thanksgiving dinner this year, and Priscilla said a turkey will not be a part of it - unless they're passing around pictures of the family's adopted turkey they've saved from slaughter.

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