When Eleni Vlachos—also known as Eleni Binge, half of the quirky Durham pop duo Beloved Binge—became a vegetarian two decades ago, she was quickly confronted with the challenge of Thanksgiving, the day countless American families gather around a slowly roasted bird.
"I didn't know how to cook yet," she admits, laughing. Vlachos tried her hand at tofurky. "Oh my god, I got laughed out of my family."
These days, though, Vlachos is the mastermind of a vegan Thanksgiving feast. For the last three years, Vlachos and her husband and bandmate, Rob, have welcomed about 40 neighbors, fellow musicians and out-of-towners to their home in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood for food, music and maybe even a chance to break it down.
"The first year, we had to put quarters on the record player because it was skipping everywhere as people were dancing," she remembers.
This year, they'll forgo the quarters in favor of a new record player. And whether or not they dance largely depends on the choices of the party's unofficial DJ, an animal-rights activist friend who drives down every year from Washington, D.C. He'll veto your choice if he doesn't approve. "I tried to play some Christmas music last year—'Frosty the Snowman,' or something—but he didn't let me."
Even if she doesn't get to spin her record of choice (Yoko Ono and Vassilis Tsitsanis are likely bets), Vlachos, who became a vegan eight years ago, will control a vast menu. She reads a cornucopia of possibilities from a piece of notebook paper: her (award-winning) veggie pot pie with savory roux, pumpkin cookies, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, stuffed peppers, apple pie, a bread bowl with squash soup ("Even though I don't like squash much, but it seems like the right thing to do"), stuffing in portobello caps, seitan pot roast, hot cider ("spiked and clean livin' styles"), mashed potatoes with portobello gravy, pumpkin cheesecake and cranberries. And that's maybe the half of it.
"People usually bring things to share," explains Vlachos, "which is nice, because instead of just one person just making everything, you share the holiday with sharing your food."
The variety and scope of the known menu exceed what many experience at their own Thanksgiving feasts, much less at one that chooses to ethically sidestep the fowl-er parts of turkey day.
At various potlucks and events in her hometown of Seattle, Vlachos found herself surrounded by a dismal representation of vegan food. Meat, it seemed, wasn't the only thing left out of a lot of recipes. In the interest of health, salt and oil ("and flavor," she adds) had also been booted. She figured she'd "never go vegan, because the people and food were bland." A sobering confrontation with a factory feedlot and the realization she could put as much fat and salt into her food as she wanted changed her mind.
"I usually tell [people] it's not a subtraction problem, becoming a vegan or eating more vegan foods, it's more of an addition problem because you end up learning and discovering all of these different kind of foods that you didn't know existed," says Vlachos. "There's an adventure more so than a restriction 'cause you learn to cook with more things than you typically would if you just had the typical meat or dairy, but I think it's daunting at first for people." She goes on to describe various vegan sundries— faux-gyros, "cheese" made from cashews and almonds, flan custard sans eggs.
"People think of veganism as a restriction, but it's so much deeper than that for most people. It's not about your body; it's about other bodies. You're not doing it for sort of a whim."
Aside from her cooking, Vlachos advocates for veganism and animal rights. In 2008, she released and toured extensively behind Seeing Through the Fence, a feature-length documentary about the perils of the food industry and attitudes toward it. Not everyone's an activist, Vlachos figures, but everyone—vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike—"enjoys the good food and company" that such a community celebration fosters.
"With the Thanksgiving record party, it's kind of a nice way at least for me to kind of wind down from some of the activism," explains Vlachos, "and just really enjoy food and friends and records, and do so in such a way that it's sort of consistent with [my] values.
"Holidays should be warm," she says. "Like vinyl."
Eleni Vlachos' Veggie Pot Pie
Vlachos adapted this recipe from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook, veganizing it.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup shortening or Earth Balance spread
3 tablespoons ice water
1/2 teaspoon salt
If you want a top layer, double this recipe.
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 medium potatoes, diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1 cup criminis, shiitakes or portobellos, thinly sliced
1/2 cup corn
1/2 cup Delight Soy "chicken" patties, diced (optional)
1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon sage
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Earth Balance spread
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup unsweetened soy milk with 1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Either double the crust recipe and simply layer the crust on top, or:
2 tablespoons Earth Balance Spread
2/3 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon sage
In a large saucepan or cast-iron skillet, sauté the onions in the oil for about a minute on medium heat. Add the carrots, potatoes, celery, paprika and marjoram. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the bell pepper, mushrooms, corn and optional Delight Soy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook another 5–10 minutes, until the carrots are tender.
Cut in your shortening or Earth Balance fat using a pastry cutter, fork or fingers. When cut properly, the mixture should be mealy with small lumps. Sprinkle in your ice water until the dough forms; use more if the dough doesn't form.
Shape the piecrust into a 10" round pie pan. Chill.
Measure out one cup of soy milk and add the vinegar. Stir to facilitate curdling. Melt the Earth Balance in a saucepan using low heat. Add the flour and stir for a minute with a fork. Whisk in the soy milk, nutmeg and mustard without boiling. Whisk until thick.
For topping, use the piecrust or make the bread crumb mixture by melting the Earth Balance and adding all the other ingredients. Coat the bread crumbs.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Use a slotted spoon (to avoid excess liquid) to scoop the filling into the piecrust shell. Pour the roux over the top, poking the spoon into the vegetables in a few places so the roux can travel. Sprinkle the crumb mixture on top or place the second piecrust on top. Bake for 40 minutes.