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At Thanksgiving, the food is what’s truly divisive

ISTOCK PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/PHOTO CHUCK PLACE

When Sarah Dussault brought a vegan, gluten-free pumpkin pie to her mom’s Thanksgiving on the Cape last year, she was virtually the only person willing to brave the treat. “It was delicious,” says Dussault, 28, a healthy-living blogger, “but I think people couldn’t get past the chickpeas.”

This Thanksgiving, Dus­sault’s family will be scattered, and though she’ll miss them, being in charge of her own menu “is my dream come true,” she says, anticipating a feast of cauliflower mashed potatoes and stuffing made from sprouted-grain bread.

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Forget politics. At Thanks­giving, the food is the thing that’s truly divisive. No one’s tabulated the number of gastronomic mismatches between hosts and guests, but with every passing year, the once-simple act of sharing a holiday meal feels ever more complicated, as Americans layer food issue on top of food issue.

“The list of things people are avoiding keeps expanding,” says food and diet trend researcher Harry Balzer, a vice president with the NPD Group, a market research company.

First it was sugar, he says, then came cholesterol, fat, sodium, lactose, and now there’s a new villain. “Twenty eight percent of the adult population is saying they’d like to cut back or avoid gluten entirely.”

Throw in the lactose-intolerant; the lactose-intolerant intolerant (people annoyed by others’ food sensitivities); people with nut, egg, or other allergies, or those who worry they have those allergies; the vegetarians; the vegans; the macrobiotics; the low-fat people: the Atkins crowd; the locavores; the people on a cleanse; the foodies; and the anti-foodies, who insist on cranberry sauce straight from the can. It’s no wonder that last year 14 million Americans were expected to eat a Thanksgiving meal in a restaurant, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

In Brookline, Wendy Pierce is living the challenge. Her 19 guests this year will include a vegetarian sister-in-law; her own sister, who’s suddenly avoiding saturated fats; and her children, who eat so few traditional Thanksgiving foods that they’re hungry as soon as the meal’s over. “The first time I made Thanksgiving I didn’t ask anyone what they wanted,” says Pierce, a publicist. “What I made would just have to be good enough.” But then, like countless others nationwide, she suffered the curse of the host: “I started to feel guilty.”

‘It was a lot easier in 1621 than it is now. Now you have people who have to have a certain kind of cranberry sauce, a certain type of stuffing . . . whether or not anyone still likes them or ever liked them. We’ve got a lot of emotional triggers.’

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Never mind that the physical act of putting together a meal has probably never been simpler, modern hosts have it harder than people in the 17th century, says Plimoth Plantation’s Colonial foodways culinarian, even though they cooked without microwave ovens, or access to the Butterball turkey hot line and Whole Foods’ takeout case. “It was a lot easier in 1621 than it is now,” says Kathleen Wall.

At that first Thanksgiving, she says, no one came with preconceived ideas of what Thanksgiving was supposed to be. “Now you have people who have to have a certain kind of cranberry sauce, a certain type of stuffing, and certain types of pies, whether or not anyone still likes them or ever liked them. We’ve got a lot of emotional triggers.”

And food-wise, we’re becoming a nation of brats. “It used to be just 5-year-olds who would say, ‘I don’t eat this,’ or ‘That can’t touch that on my plate,’ ” says Julie Klam, author of “Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without,” “but now that never ends. We’re not outgrowing it.”

As Elizabeth Jarrard, a registered dietitian in Boston, notes, “Food is something that can bring people together, but it can also separate people.”

In other words, as a vegan heading to Thanksgiving at her boyfriend’s parents’ house, in Holliston, she plans to keep her mouth shut — and focus on the sides.

“I don’t think anyone wants the radical vegan preaching about how horrible turkey is,” says Jarrard, 24.

Sometimes the host is the one on the pickier side of the divide. That’s the case for Barbara Mattaliano, a cofounder of Goose Valley Natural Foods, and a woman with several food allergies. So when she cooks for her Italian family at her sister’s North End apartment, she’ll keep the stuffing’s gluten-free nature to herself. “My family is very old school. It would confuse them.”

If there is one benefit to the growing pickiness of the American eater, it’s that so many people are avoiding some ingredient that hosts have come to expect issues, says Alexis Ribak Deutsch, a personal trainer in Newton, who can’t eat gluten, lactose, tree nuts, or crustaceans. “Thanksgiving is so much easier now.”

And even if it doesn’t feel that way in the days leading up to the holiday, as Pierce notes: “In the end, everyone has a lot of wine and it all seems to come together.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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