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Vegans Roast the Thanksgiving Turkey Time-Travel Flick ‘Free Birds’

A vegan chef, a vegan vet and a vegan animal rights activist talk turkey on time travel and turducken

Should turkeys time travel? This is but one of the curious questions posed by the 2013 animated adventure Free Birds (now on Hulu!). With Thanksgiving fast approaching, many of us are scrambling for ways to make this holiday special. Perhaps you want to kick back with a family-friendly movie. Maybe you wish to shake up some unsustainable traditions. Either way, here’s a timely movie in which two time-traveling turkeys seek to rewrite holiday history.  

Free Birds follows a flock of two. Reggie (Owen Wilson) has his wattle coddled, as he’s the president’s pardoned turkey, living the cushy life of channel surfing and gobbling up cheese pizza. That is, until an escaped factory-farmed turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson) drags him into a strange prophecy and a time machine. Their mission: to travel to the first Thanksgiving to get turkey off the menu. 

As this funky, feathered film touches on animal rights as well as swapping meat out of holiday meals, we reached out to three passionate vegans for their thoughts on Free Birds

Are turkeys smart enough to time travel responsibly? 

lauren Ornelas, vegan, animal rights activist of over 30 years and founder of Food Empowerment Project: Absolutely! When I’ve investigated farms of turkeys being raised for food, they’ve been the most curious, peering directly into the video camera. Turkeys are incredibly inquisitive animals. I could see them figuring it out.

Federica Maggio, vegan veterinarian, Diplomate ACVO at Tufts V.E.T.S.: If it’s for the purpose of avoiding the Thanksgiving massacre, I believe they would. However, time travel is quite demanding, even for a turkey on a mission.

Priyanka Naik, vegan chef and Food Network champion: As much I love all animals (including turkey vultures) and know they have minds of their own, no, I don’t think turkeys would be smart enough to time travel responsibly. That’s the keyword, “responsibly.” Could they stumble upon a time machine and stick their feathery butts in accidently and jet off, highly likely! But responsibly, nah. They most definitely followed a kernel of corn into a time machine. Not that smartie Reggie, though!

In Free Birds, Reggie the turkey declares cheese pizza “way better than corn.” Do you agree?

Ornelas: No. Corny is way better than cheesy.

Maggio: Is this a trick question? I am vegan, cheese is the devil!

Naik: Do you want my good-vegan-chef answer or my honest answer? Let’s do both! Good-vegan-chef answer would be, “No! Corn is way better! And way better for you! Plus it’s vegan!” But my honest answer: It’s actually a hard choice. I love corn, and I love pizza (born and raised in NYC, what do you expect?!). But I have so many issues with corn, because corn is the top subsidized crop in the U.S., simply for the purposes of using as cattle feed and as a filler among many consumer packaged goods. And a lot of the corn is grown from a diluted strain and is GMO [genetically modified organism]. So it doesn’t even taste that good! So in this case yes, cheese pizza is way better than corn! But if I had to choose between cheese pizza and maize, then I would have to say, maize all the way. 

In the film, Reggie rescues the turkeys by delivering cheese pizza to the pilgrims. Is cheese pizza a better Thanksgiving option than turkey?

Naik: Is that even a question?! Especially if it’s vegan? GAME ON! Honestly, most people don’t even know how to cook the turkey. It’s dry, bland and not carved properly, so that poor turkey’s life went in vain. Whereas a pizza is more environmentally friendly, cheaper, feeds more people and is satisfying, because you’re not relying on some bad cook to make your food. No offense!

Ornelas: I would prefer to eat any meal with a turkey than a cheese pizza, as turkeys would make better companions.

Maggio: For a turkey, anything would be a better option, I guess. As a vegan, I’d probably hold on the cheese.

What’s a good vegan substitute for the traditional turkey and gravy?

Maggio: I bake a killer seitan with vegan gravy — to die for.

Naik: There are so many fun things you can make that aren’t a turkey! Last year, I made a whole roasted stuffed pumpkin with a spicy cranberry-pistachio pilaf and crispy onions. The year before that I made spice-rubbed cauliflower steaks with a pomegranate gravy and pearl couscous. The list goes on and on. Listen, I’m all for maintaining tradition, but you gotta progress with the times and cook things that are better for you and the environment, duh!

Ornelas: Well, as someone who is Native American/Mexican, I think anything can replace Thanksgiving as a whole, but I prefer vegan tamales.

Is there really a vegan turducken? 

Maggio: I had to Google what a turducken is… and I’m still barfing. No, I don’t believe I could even conceive a vegan turducken. 

Naik: Unfortunately, there are vegan variations of turducken (using squash, tofu, etc.), but I’m happy to report that I haven’t dabbled in it. I have no desire to eat something that’s mimicking multiple animals being stuffed inside of each other. Like, what? I would be just as horrified as Reggie and Jake!

Ornelas: Well, there is a dish called tofucken, but it’s not a good idea to mention it in polite company!

STEVE the time machine has the voice of George Takei. What voice would your time machine have?

Naik: Is there anyone other than Sir David Attenborough? No, I believe not. Veggie-friendly, soothing and one-of-a-kind.

Maggio: Seth Rogen!

Ornelas: Fellow vegan Angela Davis — we all need to hear what she has to say.

If you could time-travel back expressly to impact animal rights for the better, where/when would you go?

Naik: The time when factory farming started, around the 1960s. See, when humans first came into being, they relied on eating animals out of the lack of resources and agriculture. But eventually humans evolved out of the necessity of eating animals because of standardized farming. We became omnivores and physically lost the ability to break down, eat and even digest meat. So the fact that our modern-day era has created an industry to raise and confine animals just for the purposes of commercial consumption is wrong on so many levels.

Ornelas: I would go back to the first time humans sought to exploit or harm another animal — human or non-human.

Maggio: Well, obviously at the beginning of time. I’d have a little chat with Lucy, and explain the benefits of kale and grains over recalcitrant prey. Besides, it’s much less work. Vegetables don’t run.