TEMPLE TERRACE — Before they filled their plates with Tofurky, Don and Carol Ardell recalled bloody Thanksgivings past.
Big turkeys. Smoked ribs. Those were dark days.
"It looked like a slaughterhouse," Don said with a chuckle as he described the kitchen of a meat-loving friend whose home they used to visit for Thanksgiving.
"There were all these knives!" said Carol, 57.
"There was blood everywhere," deadpanned Don, 74.
By contrast, the seventh annual ThanksVegan dinner at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa, which the St. Petersburg couple attended with several hundred other people, was a far more gentle affair.
Sliced organic radishes. Russet potatoes with soy milk and vegan butter. Thai papaya salad. Vegan chocolate peanut butter fudge and pecan pie. Soups served in carved out pumpkins.
"The turkeys, if they could speak to you, they'd thank you," event co-organizer Joan Zacharias told the crowd before food was served.
Attendees, who paid $6 if they brought a dish and $16 if they did not, included people who don't eat meat or dairy for moral reasons, newer converts who cite health reasons and first-time tag-alongs like Val Houston, a 70-year-old St. Petersburg omnivore who came with her vegan friends.
"This is an adventure," said Houston, who typically eats turkey and all the trimmings at Thanksgiving. "I've never seen so much food in my life."
Vegans can spend much of their holiday season figuring out how to deal with meals centered around meat, cheesy casseroles and desserts prepared with real butter.
Chris Cargo, a 59-year-old vegan, said when she used to cook Thanksgiving for her husband's parents, for instance, she knew they didn't care for her meatless "holiday loaf with cashews." So she'd throw a Cornish game hen in the oven, too.
Dawn and Daniel Taylor drove from their home in Citrus County, where they say most of their friends would expect meat with their Thanksgiving dinner.
The meal is worth the drive for Dawn, a five-year vegan who switched over initially for health reasons and then became convinced the meat industry is a cruel one. (Good timing for the pig that wandered up on her property five years ago; he's now a beloved pet, not dinner.)
"It's nice to be with like-minded people and celebrate with all this wonderful food," said Dawn.
Across Tampa on Thursday, residents were also preparing to celebrate the day in their own way. By midmorning, Bayshore Boulevard was teeming with joggers and bicyclists getting in a last workout before the big feed. On Interstate 275, a steady stream of cars inched along, more than one of them carrying passengers with heads back, mouths open, eyes shut. Several homeless vendors who sell the Epoch street newspapers in Tampa got rides to the home of a Pasco woman named Tina Iddirisu, who served them turkey, green bean casserole, deviled eggs and iced tea in blue Solo cups.
Back at ThanksVegan, Heather and Rob Eddy of Ruskin were feeding their son, Robert III, not quite a year old, bits of warm sweet potato under a gazebo outside the church. Both vegetarians, they said they looked forward to the event every year since they started attending in 2009.
But Robert III wasn't their only first-time guest. Rob also brought his mother, Helen Eddy, most definitely not a vegetarian. They turned to see how she was doing with her plate, piled high with side dishes.
"I found candied sweet potatoes," she said, not smiling as the couple laughed. "That's something I know."
But Thanksgiving is more than juicy turkey, even for the meat lovers in the family. Might she return to ThanksVegan next year? Of course. "If they come next year," she said, "I'll come next year."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected]