A young vegetarian shows her gratitude by turning a squash into a bird.
While most families were preparing a giant, traditional bird on Thanksgiving, my vegetarian parents began preparations for our "turkey": a chubby, round, Hubbard squash. And so, like any resourceful child who longed to experience a typical Thanksgiving, I happily took on the job of transforming that gourd into a festive poultry look-alike.
When I was growing up, my family followed a macrobiotic diet that traded dairy, meat, and sugar for locally grown foods, which we prepared ourselves at home. Attention, detail, and love were infused into every morsel of food we ate. My mother baked macrobiotic cakes for my brothers and me to take to school so we'd have a healthy treat when the other students celebrated their birthdays with sugary sweets. She also mastered the art of chopping carrots on the precise angle macrobiotics said would release the vegetable's optimal inherent energy and nourishment.
My parents fully believed in the core teaching of macrobiotics: "You are what you eat." And they didn't want us to be like a turkey (thick-skinned green gourds, however, were a different story!). Yet the lifestyle they created for us through food had its challenging moments—no matter how many healthy alternatives they provided, string cheese and fire engine-red fruit roll-ups seemed more appealing to my youthful eyes than snacks like fishy, toasted seaweed. And my parents' careful attention to our diets often created tension with family members and friends who had to (sometimes unwillingly) cater to our dietary restrictions at holidays and get-togethers. As homegrown vegetarians in a meat-centric world, the holiday of cooked birds frightened us as much as it inspired our creativity.
My "turkification" of our Hubbard squash began—as macrobiotics does—in nature. On those cool crisp Thanksgiving mornings, while my mom cooked the squash and prepared wild-rice stuffing, I would put on my warmest sweatshirt, jacket, and gloves and enter our backyard to search the dirt for perfectly-shaped sticks or branches to stunt-double as turkey legs. My imagination turned the sandy, dirty timber into thick muscles and taut skin. With new eyes I discovered a turkey in nature: Red autumn leaves suddenly became a drooping neck, crisp, scalloped leaves became regal feathers—and so I picked them up, one by one, and held the magical ingredients in my cold little hands.
Building the turkey was just as fun. When the squash was cooked through, my mother would rest it on a teardrop-shaped wood platter and I'd get to work. The meaty, curvaceous squash became the turkey's body and around its impressive form, I'd systematically arrange the sticks, leaves, and foliage to unleash the squash's inner turkey. Satisfied, I'd serve my creation proudly, happy that I could have a turkey without harming a bird in the process. Maybe it was my active, fantasy-producing mind, or maybe it was my mom's genius seasoning, but when I'd eat the squash, I believed it tasted like turkey. And having never eaten the bird at that point, my whimsy couldn't be disputed.
Looking back on those years, I yearn to replicate the innocence and imagination with which I created the symbol of our gratitude. Over time, my family has become less dogmatic about macrobiotics (we've even added Tofurky—a tofu turkey—to our Thanksgiving meal, something previously considered too "processed" for our liking). And though we've all gone in different culinary directions—my brothers and I insist on "real" turkey these days (it's free-range and kosher though, of course)—we all realize that Thanksgiving isn't about the bird, but rather is about reflecting on the meaning you infuse your life with. And that meaning—like "turkey"—can come in many forms.