Lentil Loaf

by Mary Phillips-Sandy

When I say that I used to celebrate Thanksgiving by eating lentil loaf, most people need a moment to process the phrase. Thanksgiving lentil loaf? Should those words be next to each other? (I blame this reaction on the icky sound of the word “loaf,” not anti-vegetarian bias, but who knows.)

My foray into meatlessness began in junior high, after a biology teacher slipped me a copy of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. To this day I’m not sure why she did that. Maybe she sensed my budding interest in economics, politics, the environment and intersections thereof. Maybe she figured I was already doing poorly with the whole “fitting in and making friends” thing, so I might as well have a valid excuse to avoid the cafeteria.

If Lappé’s book had just focused on the plight of baby veals, I am pretty sure I would have sniffled a little, gotten over it, and gone downstairs for a bologna sandwich. But Diet for a Small Planet did something else. It named hazy concepts I’d already encountered without knowing what to call them, or how to handle them, and it told me exactly what to do about them. Suddenly everything made sense. Also, everything was connected. My mother’s Dorothy Day poster. My father’s Doonesbury books. The California table grapes we weren’t allowed to buy. The hockey players who slammed hammy fists into lockers to make the nerds jump.

The next morning I marched into the kitchen and informed my parents that I would not be having any meat that day, nor the next day, nor the day after that. I did not want the beef stew that my mother was assembling. Turkey? Do you have any idea how inefficient turkey is, on an input-per-calorie basis? After listening to me rant about soybeans and soil erosion for a few months my mother gave in and read Diet for a Small Planet. After that she ordered copies of Vegetarian Times and the Moosewood cookbook, because if my family believes in anything, it is the strategic acquisition of knowledge.

Then my mother opened the fridge, closed it again, and informed my father and my brother that it didn’t make sense to keep eating meat. My brother was too young to argue and my father is both absurdly easy-going and fond of produce, so all of a sudden we were vegetarians.

For our first meatless Thanksgiving we made my grandmother’s stuffing and baked it in squash halves because holiday meals are supposed to have stuffed mains. It tasted good, and squash-and-bread carb comas are just as intense as turkey comas, which seemed appropriate too. Then, flipping through a copy of Vegetarian Times, I discovered something called lentil loaf: cooked lentils, oats and shredded carrot, seasoned and baked. My parents remembered grim bean-and-grain loaves from the seventies, but this one looked almost like real meatloaf, plus it came with a recipe for a fancy pureed red pepper topping.

I made it, and it was tasty. After we modified the original recipe to make it less bland, lentil loaf became a suppertime staple. Most nights we were too harried for the pepper puree, but lentil loaf, like meatloaf, benefits from ketchup. It’s even good cold and on sandwiches. We never thought of it as a particularly festive dish until one year, as we sat in the kitchen talking about carbs to put in our squash, someone suggested making the lentil loaf for Thanksgiving. Why not? You carved it, sort of. And it was protein. And it made good leftovers.

From then on lentil loaf became synonymous with Thanksgiving. To make it feel more special we’d bake it in a casserole dish instead of an ordinary loaf pan; this had the bonus effect of creating more crispy top. Since our extended family lives far from central Maine there was no one to complain about the lack of turkey. It was just the four of us eating lentils and watching “Law and Order” marathons.

Of course, I was the one who fell first. With no warning, after twelve years of vegetarianism, I began craving poultry. I had moved to New York by then and I found myself lurking outside Kennedy Fried Chicken, sniffing. I had no weird sense of moral superiority about not eating meat, I just didn’t think it was logical, and I had become squeamish about the idea of putting dead birds in my mouth. But oh, that smell! And oh, those drumsticks in those buckets!

One afternoon, as I was walking to the subway with a friend, I became distracted by a pigeon. It waddled ahead of us, a large bird with a fine breast. So plump. So moist. I knew my thought would sound wrong. It came out anyway. “That pigeon looks delicious,” I said. A few hours later I was in Brooklyn, face to face with a grilled chicken cutlet sandwich. My friend told me it was for my own good. It was.

My parents held out for another two years, so our holidays remained meatless. Habits are hard to break, and as my mother pointed out, if she didn’t crave meat, why eat it? It was a piece of barbecued chicken at a state fair that did her in. I think my father was relieved, though he was too polite to say so. That left my brother, who went through college avoiding meat — not a difficult decision in most dining halls — but within months he was ready for bacon.

A few years ago, for the first time since the pre-Lewinsky Clinton White House, my family made turkey on Thanksgiving. We agreed to spend a little extra on a non-Purdue bird that hadn’t spent its life wallowing in poop and Monsanto, and when my father carved a slice for me it was every bit as delicious as I’d remembered. Maybe even better.

Of course, lentil loaf is still pretty good too.

You need:

1 cup dry red lentils, rinsed
2 cups water
1 cup rolled oats
1 egg or equivalent vegan egg replacer
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 packed cup grated carrot
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon ketchup (use Worcestershire if you don’t care about anchovies)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dry sage + 1 tsp. dry thyme, or 2 tsp. poultry seasoning (ha!)
Lots of black pepper

Put lentils and water in a medium pot. Simmer for 15–20 minutes, adding some extra water if it looks dry. They’ll get mushy, that’s okay. While they’re cooking, preheat the oven to 350 and oil a loaf pan, 9″ cake pan or casserole dish.

Combine the cooked lentils with all the other ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Spread in the prepared pan. Bake for 35–40 minutes (a shallow dish goes faster), until the top is nice and crusty. Let it stand for 5 minutes before slicing or “carving.”

Mary Phillips-Sandy lives in Portland (not Oregon).

Illustration by Susie Cagle.