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Her Newly Vegan Daughter Helped Her Embrace New Thanksgiving Traditions

At first she was disappointed. But she soon came to feel proud of her daughter’s new lifestyle.

Jessica Reed and daughter Willow; photo by Roy Gumple

“Mom, I’ve got something important to tell you,” my 18-year-old daughter, Willow, announced at the end of one of our calls. “But I can’t tell you over the phone.”

She hung up, leaving me in suspense. She would be home from college in a week for Thanksgiving break—but that suddenly seemed so far away. Willow and I were close. What was so bad that she had to tell me in person? Was she dropping out of school? Was she in some kind of trouble?

Her dad and I picked her up two days before the holiday. My bubbly daughter was quiet on the four-hour drive home. I sent up a quick prayer. God, help her feel comfortable talking to me, and help me accept whatever it is.

The next morning, I made Willow’s favorite breakfast: scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon. She just pushed the food around her plate. Oh boy, I thought. This must be serious. I hoped that our grocery shopping trip that afternoon would give us a chance to talk.

Every year, Willow and I had a ball shopping and preparing the holiday meal. I got out a pen and paper and started our list. We had to hurry. Thanksgiving was tomorrow. Good thing we always made the same traditional dishes. Family favorites. Some of the recipes had been passed down for generations.

I handed her the list. “Make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.” Willow looked at the paper for a while.

Finally she spoke. “Mom, the thing I’ve been wanting to tell you is, I’m vegan now.” She hesitated. “I can’t eat any of this.”

My mind reeled. This hadn’t been one of the scenarios I’d imagined. We were a meat-and-potatoes kind of family. In fact, since the time she could talk, Willow ordered steak every single time we ate out. Is she questioning our values? Food was at the center of so many of our family traditions. Would we ever again enjoy holiday meals together?

I gave her another piece of paper. “Okay, write down what you need,” I said as cheerfully as I could. “At least we can still share some dishes, like our green bean casserole.”

“No, Mom, I can’t,” Willow said gently. “That casserole has dairy products in it.”

This was going to be harder than I thought. We checked our small-town supermarket. They didn’t have a fraction of the strange ingredients on Willow’s list. We would have to go to a health food store in a larger town. We drove in silence. Maybe it’s just a phase, I told myself. But glancing over at Willow softened me. She looked miserable.

“Tell me why you decided to become a vegan,” I said.

Willow told me that although she’d loved the foods she had grown up with, she had come to feel strongly about the ethics of animal products. Maybe it wasn’t that unexpected. Her father had run an animal sanctuary when she was growing up, and she had helped care for a variety of creatures.

I was surprised to learn that she had actually been practicing veganism since the summer, before heading to college. I hadn’t even noticed! My annoyance turned into pride. My daughter was standing up for something she believed in.

At the health food store, Willow and I split up to save time. As I set off in search of things like nutritional yeast and smoked paprika, a new worry surfaced: It was going to be expensive making two of everything. As I rounded the corner, I saw Willow in the frozen foods section.

She picked up an item from the freezer, read the back of the package, then put it back. She repeated the process with a different item, this time putting it in her basket. She was so deep in thought that she didn’t notice me walk up to her. Then I heard it. My daughter was humming. If being vegan makes her this happy, I need to try and make the best of it.

My resolve to play nice quickly faded on Thanksgiving morning as Willow and I jostled for oven space, bowls and mixing spoons. In our small kitchen, we bumped into each other every time we turned around. Instead of talking and laughing the way we normally did, we were quiet.

I was grieving our holiday traditions. Every year we’d take a picture of Willow triumphantly holding up a giant turkey leg; it was her favorite part of the bird, and she always claimed it. No more, I thought.

When Willow and I did speak, it was mainly to exchange accusing questions. “Are you really taking up all the burners?” I asked. “When can you turn down the oven temperature for our turkey?” “What do you mean you need your own cutting board?”

“Did you just put butter in the potatoes before I could take out any for myself?” Willow fired back. “Mom, why did you buy this thing with casein in it? That’s a milk product.”

By the time we got dinner on the table for our group of seven, both Willow and I were cranky and exhausted. And actually there were two tables: I put the vegan dishes—six in total—on a side table. I didn’t want anyone to confuse them with the real dishes.

People piled food on their plates. Everyone gamely tried some of the vegan options. With all the eating and chatting, it began to feel like a normal Thanksgiving. When I went to get seconds, I was shocked to see that some of our old favorites had barely been touched. A few of Willow’s dishes were almost gone.

“This mushroom gravy—it’s so delicious,” her dad said, pouring the last of it over his turkey. “This is vegan?” Then there were the two green bean casseroles. Mine, an old family recipe made with creamy canned soup, had always been a crowd-pleaser. The consensus on Willow’s casserole, made with almond milk and vegan butter, was that it tasted almost identical to mine. Truthfully, I thought hers was a tad better.

The rest of the family left the dining table between dinner and dessert. Willow looked at me and said, “Thank you, Mom.”

I thought about the impatience I had shown while shopping and cooking. “For what?”

Willow gestured to the food and the pile of plates in the sink. “For all of this,” she said.

Indeed. Thank you, God, for all of this, I prayed silently.

What I had hoped was a phase has become a lifestyle for Willow. I am proud of her, and I’m proud of myself too. These days, she and I have our routine down. What was once an awkward process has become our own special dance as we work around each other gracefully in the kitchen.

Letting go of the “perfect” traditional holiday has opened me up to new experiences. Some of our family’s favorite food traditions are now vegan. I’ve become an expert at reading food labels and shopping economically, and I’m always excited for Willow to come home so I can surprise her with a new vegan ingredient I’ve discovered.

This year, as our family waits for the vegan razzleberry pie to bake—the one we all love—I will thank God for the traditions, old and new, that have come together to make the holidays our own.

Try Willow’s Vegan Green Bean Casserole at home!

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