FARGO - Celebrating a holiday based in large part on largesse can be tough for vegans and vegetarians.

"We had one gal - she had never been to anything where she could eat everything," said Kathleen Keene of Moorhead.

The woman, a vegan, told Keene she was usually reduced to eating only corn and salad at Thanksgiving celebrations with family.

That was before a group of local vegans and vegetarians began holding an annual "Gentle Thanksgiving" at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Fargo, celebrating what they call a "cruelty-free" holiday.

"Most people are coming as a refugee - they're the only ones who are vegan or vegetarian [in their households]. We have kind of adopted each other as a family," said Keene, one of the dinner's organizers.

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Gentle Thanksgiving began locally seven years ago, put on by Fargo-Moorhead Vegetarians and Vegans. It was based on a national movement to take the turkey out of Turkey Day and introduce celebrating the holidays without meat or animal products.

The local Thanksgiving potluck, which was held Sunday this year, is open to the public, but Keene said they have to keep the guest list limited to 50 because of lack of space at the church.

Four meat eaters were present this year, one of whom came with her vegetarian husband. Keene said that doesn't seem to pose a problem at their events.

"If you don't advertise, people don't realize it's anything different than you usually eat," Keene said.

Granted, that's coming from a vegan. It's the sort of gathering where the green beans with real cheese on top just sat off in the corner by themselves. The big hit this year was the vegan mac and "cheese."

Elizabeth Pausch of Christine hopes to replicate the dish after going back for seconds and trying to snag the recipe from a fellow member.

"He says he doesn't have a recipe for it, which saddens me greatly," said Pausch, who brought another big hit, the pumpkin-chocolate chip cake.

Since it's a feast almost entirely free of animal products, there's less of a focus on a single centerpiece entrée. Still, mock meat products like Tofurky (tofu made to taste like turkey) are popular. Keene tries to get the companies that produce them to donate them each year.

Aside from the food, the main attraction for many is that the gathering can be fraught with less friction than they find at home.

Keene said many members find themselves bringing their own food to family gatherings, rather than impose upon the cook to provide something special.

But bringing one's own, or even refusing food the host offers, even when it's based on health or ethical objections, can create hurt feelings as well, she agreed.

"I had a moment - 'I guess I'm going to have to host it myself,' " she said.

Pausch said bringing vegan and vegetarian traditions to the family table can be done incrementally. Her moment of triumph was getting her father to concede that vegan mashed potatoes tasted like - no kidding - mashed potatoes.

"I didn't push for a lot of vegan things," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541