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Thanksgiving now pits traditionalists vs. foodies

Amanda Santucci (right) has a more healthy take on Thanksgiving food than her aunt, Lauren.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Come Thanksgiving, when the Frost clan sits down to turkey, store-bought gravy, canned cranberry jelly, and a green bean casserole made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, they'll give thanks: for family, friends, health — and the blessing of a holiday meal they've kept safe from foodies.

"We try not to be rude to people," said Michele Frost, an adult daughter. But ever since a guest attempted to bring a salmon appetizer to her mom's house in Quincy, the family has been on high alert for anything perceived as a gourmet intrusion. "If people insist on bringing something," she said, "we'll direct them to a beverage."


For years, the major Thanksgiving stressors have been set: politics and religion. But as a growing number of Americans go vegan, vegetarian, organic, local, grass-fed, free-range, wheat-free, or Paleo, a third flash point has been added — the divide between those who favor comfortable Thanksgiving fare and, well, food snobs.

Call it the War over Thanksgiving.

"How do I put this nicely?" said Rachel Greenberger, a vegan, describing some family members' approach to Thanksgiving. "If you ask them where they got the turkey, they'll say 'the supermarket.' They are not on the bandwagon about ethically sourced foods or concerns about the grower."

Greenberger, the director of Food Sol, a food-focused networking community at Babson College, "clenches up" at the thought of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. As a countermove, she'll arrive at her hosts' house with a few carefully considered dishes.

"I'm not going to bring vegan cheese or fake meat," she said. "I will make a salad, although I won't put wheat berry in it — it may be too out there for them."

Pushback from traditionalists comes as eating habits are changing, and consumer interest in natural ingredients is forcing food giants to adjust recipes. General Mills is cutting artificial colors and flavors from its cereals; Tyson Foods is phasing out human antibiotics in its chickens; consumption of full-calorie soda is down.


Even so, turning away from processed junk food the rest of the year is one thing, but sitting down to a plant-based feast on Thanksgiving is another. Who wants to endure Pike traffic if a heart-healthy spread is all that's waiting on the other end?

Where does this leave us? Mark Bittman, the food writer and advocate for part-time veganism, says maybe it's time for the Thanksgiving table to "evolve."

"Grandma's creamed onions can coexist with some newfound delicata squash recipe," said Bittman, now the chief innovation officer of Boston's Purple Carrot , a plant-based meal-kit service.

But people take their tradition seriously, and when it comes to losing the right to pad our midsections, Americans are not going down without a fight.

"It's the one day I can eat what I want," said Lauren Santucci, a Medfield resident with a niece who writes a blog called "the skinny spice," and takes a nutrition-focused approach to the holiday meal.

But then Santucci paused, thought about her family's history of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and decided to mentally prepare herself for Thursday.

"I'm open to trying [my niece's] stuffing," she said, a pledge that made her recall last year's black-bean "brownies."

"The less I know about the ingredients, the better," she concluded.

On her end, Amanda Santucci — the niece — reports that her relatives claim they feel "sick when we have no gluten."


But she understands. "If you try to change the food, they are like, 'This is not Thanksgiving.' "

Richard West, an Emerson College professor who specializes in family communication, sees "opposing tensions" at play in many families.

"They want to honor their food legacy — grandma always made Jell-O with fruit, so that's what we have — but on the other hand, once grandma is gone, we don't necessarily want to continue that legacy."

Meanwhile, Massachusetts traditionalists can take solace in knowing things could be worse. Hudson native Marty Moran spent the past four Thanksgivings in Portland, Ore., and he reports that there, "No one wants to be the person who brings green beans."

"Everyone wants to be the person who brings pickled beets and quinoa," said Moran, a writer. "You can be in a situation where you are lacking the staples of the meal."

Meanwhile, back in Quincy, the Frost family is upholding its traditions in a changing world.

They're sticking with their beloved appetizer of dates rolled in Skippy peanut butter rolled in sugar. While the old guard did agree that the green bean casserole could be made without packaged fried onion bits, that was a decade ago.

"We've made no progress since then," Michele Frost said.

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