I don’t really feel at home on Thanksgiving unless my holiday table includes at least one dish my mother would have made. By this I mean something vegan, organic, low-fat, and perhaps Hungarian. Last year it was her tart apple-pecan cranberry sauce, which my husband assured me was undersweetened; the year before it was a silken tofu–peanut-butter cream pie that would have mystified the Pilgrims.
But our family’s Thanksgiving traditions have always been a little untraditional. When I was 10, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my parents adopted a macrobiotic vegetarian diet. That meant turkeyless Thanksgivings for us. But my mother always insisted on a turkeylike centerpiece for the meal. She was a midcentury emigrant from Hungary, proudly American in her holiday practices and not about to give up that reference to the first Thanksgiving. Over the years she made heroic, not always successful, often touching efforts to acknowledge and approximate the holiday bird. Her labors took us into the territory of handmade wheat-meat, tofu shaped like turkey parts, and painstakingly carved and stuffed squashes.
The rest of the meal was always wholesome, delicious, and innovative—fruit relishes, delicate Japanese seaweed dishes, brown rice with lotus seeds, a rainbow of vegetables. At times during those years, I would indulge in self-pitying envy of my friends whose mothers made Norman Rockwellian feasts with big golden turkeys, mashed potatoes swimming in butter, and desserts heavy with whipped cream. That, I told myself, was real food, and what my mother made was somehow less real, and vaguely embarrassing. But she was teaching me, subtly and persistently, a few crucial lessons: first, that well-made and beautifully prepared food begets good health; second, that tradition is what you make of it; and third, that to be American means to find your own path.
After a decade-long struggle, my mother succumbed to her cancer. By that time she had far outlived her prognosis and had seen me through my childhood and teenage years—thanks in part, I still believe, to the diet she followed. My little son, born this past June, will never know her, but he’ll taste her unique approach to Thanksgiving. When he asks me why we have Japanese pressed vegetables alongside our sweet potatoes, or why we use tofu instead of cream in our cream pie, I’ll tell him about the woman who raised me to know that different is often better, and who, by adapting and subverting tradition, created one of her own.
Julie Orringer is the author of The Invisible Bridge ($18, amazon.com) and How to Breathe Underwater ($10, amazon.com). She lives in Brooklyn.