No turkey? No problem for the many vegans and vegetarians in the Philadelphia area

The holiday is known for big, hearty meals — but you don’t need to include meat for the family feast to be fulfilling, plant-based eaters say.

A vegetarian meal on a platter

File photo: This Oct. 15, 2012, file photo, shows a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, in Concord, N.H. In Philadelphia, plant-based eaters are making Thanksgiving their own. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead, File)

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Thanksgiving is known for big, hearty meals, but not everyone is interested in the traditional turkey dinner.

Philadelphia regularly ranks in the top 10 cities for vegetarians and vegans, according to various organizations and publications that track this sort of thing, including VegNews Magazine, VegOut Magazine, and VegWorld Magazine.

Vance Lehmkuhl, director of the American Vegan Center, has lived in Philadelphia for nearly 40 years, during which time he happily watched the city’s plant-based options expand and improve.

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Lehmkuhl, who gives tours illustrating the city’s significant role in the early vegetarian movement, said the old philosophy was a holdover from Revolutionary-era Philadelphian Sylvester Graham, who believed people should sacrifice enjoyment for the sake of being virtuous.

“Veg food had a reputation for being bland and boring because it was,” Lehmkuhl told WHYY News. “It was in the ‘80s when it started to evolve and people started doing more creative stuff with it.”

These days, Philadelphia has more than 50 specifically vegan and vegetarian restaurants, along with solid plant-based options at most dining establishments. However, most of them were closed over the holiday.

So what did the expanding population of plant-centric eaters do for Thanksgiving?

Fran Costigan is director of vegan pastry at the Rouxbe Online Culinary School. She made a full spread, without any need to resort to a fake turkey. She described the litany of dishes her families enjoyed: “Cornbread, cranberry relish, stuffed squash with wild rice, farrow sausage, pumpkin pie with torched meringue, chocolate cake, and cranberry pie.”

She moved to Philadelphia from New York City six years ago, and was pleasantly surprised by how it stacked up. “I think it’s more vegan-friendly,” Costigan said.

Watta Kesselly is another resident who revels in the city’s veg options. A Liberian native, she moved to Philadelphia 30 years ago. She started eating vegetarian around 2016, after being inspired by the variety of veg-friendly cuisines found around the city.

For Thanksgiving, she attended a “friendsgiving” potluck where she was the only vegan. For her contribution, she cooked a veg version of a Liberian staple — jollof. The rice dish traditionally includes meat, she said, but it’s totally normal to give it your own twist.

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“No jollof rice is the same in West Africa,” Kesselly said. “Liberians make theirs different. Ghana makes theirs different, and Nigerians make theirs different — and the Senegalese.”

As for Lehmkuhl, he spent most of his day walking the Thanksgiving Day Parade route, where he joined animal activist Janet White and ESPN sports anchor Kevin Negandhi. Lehmkuhl and White were promoting an electric carriage they hope will replace the horse-drawn carriages used for rides around Old City which Negandhi rode in the parade.

He did make it back home in time to make Tofurky with potatoes, onion, carrots, and celery, along with green bean–cream of mushroom casserole, plus cranberry sauce on the side.

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