I know Indiana isn't Mars, but it might as well be.
November 10, 2008 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm nervous about spending Thanksgiving weekend with my boyfriend's Midwestern family out-of-state in Indiana. They're flying both of us out for Thursday-Sunday, and I want to be sure to make a good impression. Advice?

Some basic background info:
  • I've been dating this guy for a little over a year, and am completely crazy about him. We're both in our mid-twenties. He's a graduate student, I'm a librarian. We met online.
  • His family consists of his two parents whose home we'll be staying in (the house my bf grew up in), as well as his older brother (early 30s, I believe) and his brother's girlfriend, who will be visiting from a neighboring state.
  • I've met his parents once before, when they came out in March to visit for a few days for my bf's birthday. I've met his brother and his brother's gf once over a year ago when they came out to visit for a few days, but due to sleep-deprivation, raging wildfires in my area, smoke inhalation, and other extenuating circumstances, I didn't make a terribly good impression with them. -I'm vegetarian, and no one else in the family is. My boyfriend has said he doesn't think his mom has ever cooked for vegetarians before. When his parents came out to visit, I made a huge picnic for his birthday with a lot of different vegetarian dishes, and several weeks later his mom sent him a package in the mail with various sort of canned/dried meat products and a very long letter explaining how to cook each of them and expressing concerns about his diet. My boyfriend isn't vegetarian, but eats vegetarian when we cook together several times a week. Is it rude for me to offer to cook a dish or two over the weekend or suggest ways to make her recipes vegetarian? I'm a competent cook, but I know there's a fine line between being helpful in the kitchen and taking control of someone else's kitchen.
  • His mom is paying for both of us to fly out, but expressed a concern that we need to stay in the city (Indianapolis) and an emphasis on "family time". What this means is unclear. I'd like to see a bit of the city, since I've never been to the area, but of course I'm fine with whatever they have planned. -His mom is generally very meddling and overbearing, but well-meaning enough. She's just a stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands. As an example, she actually paid my boyfriend and I to clean his bedroom in his apartment a month or two ago. I guess she thought it was messy when she visited in March and had been thinking about it ever since, so she brought it up in a phone conversation in August. I'm expecting some personal conversations between himself and his parents regarding potentially awkward things like finances, which are things my family don't really discuss with one another. When his parents visited before, they started to urge him to contribute to an IRA and discussed financial details at length in front of me while we were all sitting in his apartment, while my boyfriend got annoyed and tried to change the subject. What should I do if this happens again? Sit quietly? Excuse myself politely? Offer advice?
I know how to be a good house guest. I clean up after myself, keep the bed made, help with cooking and dishes, and am generally polite. However, I have some social anxiety and find it difficult to make small talk and conversation with people, so I'll be struggling to be outgoing and not cling to my boyfriend (I know I need to do that, but it will still be difficult for me). I know they're somewhat conservative, so whatever sleeping arrangements they have planned for us will be fine with me. What sort of host gift should I bring with me? Are there any other ways to make a good impression and show my appreciation? I've never dated someone who lived out of my area before, so I've never traveled to visit someone else's family. I feel like it's sort of a big step (?) and I'm just feeling way more nervous than I should be.
posted by booknerd to Human Relations (54 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
they started to urge him to contribute to an IRA and discussed financial details at length in front of me while we were all sitting in his apartment, while my boyfriend got annoyed and tried to change the subject. What should I do if this happens again? Sit quietly? Excuse myself politely? Offer advice?

It's up to you, but consider the alternative. My long-term bf's family would always take him off into the other room to discuss money when we were all together. My ex thought this was because we weren't married. I thought it was messed up.

More to the point, what was messed up was that my ex and I weren't on the same page in terms of family visits. I had certain things that I wanted in order to be in my comfort zone when I was at their house, and he was so overwhelmed by their expectations that he felt himself trapped in the middle and wound up sort of shutting down. These events always sucked.

So, the best thing you can probably do is have a nice talk in advance with your bf about your concerns and try to work out some things together. This can be as broad-ranging as anticipating what the sleeping arrangements might be and how you feel about them [if you're in separate rooms, is sneaking in for snuggle time okay or verboten?] and more specifically what to do about the dreaded money conversations. You guys need to be on the same page, otherwise it's sort of easy [in my experience only] for people to revert to being a kid in their parents' house and not being cognizant of the fact that they have a dual role as your partner at the same time. I always found it a good idea to make sure there is some planned "alone time" for the two of you even if it's just a walk around the block or some chat before bed because then you can debrief and assess how things are going and make sure you're both feeling okay.

Also, the vegetarian thing should be sorted in advance. If his parents are inviting you it needs to be crystal clear that you need something to eat at the meal that is meal-food. It may be that you need to cook this yourself [I think that's rude, but whatever] but it should be understood that as an invited guest you're not going to pick at side dishes all evening. Your bf should feel this out with them and make sure everything is set. You may get some weird vegetarian "testing" ribbing and I'd just have some pat response to why you're a vegetarian that doesn't insult anyone but also doesn't invite a deep discussion unless that's what you want.

I'd also have some solo project that you can do [a book, knitting, exercise] where you can just leave them alone for some amount of time. Parents seem to like this and there may be some down time where there's just not much to do and having an activity would make you feel less fidgety.

Otherwise the normal etiquette applies. Smile and be polite. Ask people about themselves and try to contribute to conversations without hogging them. Try to focus on the positive and the fact that no matter how it gors, you guys will be going back to your own lives together in a few days time. I think they're likely nervous too [even if they show it in different ways] and thinking about making this an event where you try to put them at ease may take your mind of of your own jitters. Good luck!
posted by jessamyn at 10:26 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would feel a bit uncomfortable accepting such a large gift (plane ticket) from people I didn't know very well - it means they get to call the shots for the whole visit, or at least they may THINK they can call the shots for the visit. Can you pay for your own ticket? That way, you don't have to feel as though you're beholden to anyone.

Just be gracious, and polite, as you would be in anyone's house. Be friendly with everyone, don't talk only to your boyfriend, don't judge anyone or anything. If you are in your mid-twenties, you are independent adults (the paying him to clean his own house thing is pretty weird, though) choosing to visit his parents for a holiday, not children coming back home - it's a subtle difference but if you look at it that way, you can be yourself while still being respectful and polite.

Food - honestly, it sounds like it might be a bit of a hassle, especially if they come from the cooking school that dictates bacon and beef stock in everything. Ask if you can contribute something to the meal - a veggie main dish that everyone can share - and prepare it well before the circus gets going. Be considerate about oven and fridge use, since many people have schedules and space rotations planned out well in advance of the big day. If she is the type who doesn't like others messing with her menu and isn't willing to modify things (though you should certainly have the conversation first!), you may just have to come with lots of snacks and suffer through the dinner itself - especially if you're there as the guest they flew in from out of state.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:26 AM on November 10, 2008

A note about food: I think offering to cook a dish or two would be lovely, but I wouldn't mention making changes to your boyfriend's mom's cooking. It's not very hospitable, and it's worst-case-scenario, but I would plan on their not having much for you to eat and would pack veggie-friendly snacks accordingly. I think you should discuss you being a vegetarian as little as possible, maybe just a quick inquiry BEFORE dinner (not at the table) about what has meat/stock/etc. in it.

BTW - The fact that she sent him meat products and a concerned letter - HILARIOUS!

Make absolutely sure to send them a thank you note as soon as you arrive home.

Also, I assume you've talked about this with your boyfriend? If his parents are making you uncomfortable, he can stand up to them in ways you can't.
posted by robinpME at 10:30 AM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do NOT offer to make vegetarian meals or teach her how to make her meals vegetarian. What would your response be if the roles were reversed, and she were offering to teach you to make meat-based meals in your home? It's very rude and presumptuous.

I was a vegetarian from birth; just this year I began eating meat to see if I'd like it. If asked to help in the kitchen, I would make whatever I was asked to make (salad, etc) but would explain to the cook "I've never (or don't) prepare meat; you probably don't want me helping with that". If they brought it up, I would talk about being vegetarian, what my family does for a turkey during the holidays, the health benefits (or at least the no-seriously-I-do-get-enough-protein chat), etc, but that's it. You're a guest in their home, you shouldn't try to dictate their menu. It would be nice if your boyfriend made sure that his mom will be preparing food you can eat.

As for your other questions, I posted a similar question (re Christmas) a few weeks ago, and I got some helpful hints.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 10:30 AM on November 10, 2008

When it comes to Thanksgiving food, it is likely they have many family traditions, so you shouldn't try to mess with what's on the menu. My inlaws can't cook without meat, and they do it in a way that makes it difficult to pick around it. There's linguica in the peas, bacon in the mashed potatoes, crab in the salad, giblets in the dressing and it's all served alongside six kinds of gelatin.

I usually make a little casserole thing that could serve as my main dish and a side dish for anyone who would like to try it. If I don't bring or make something for myself, I end up eating a bun.
posted by sageleaf at 10:34 AM on November 10, 2008

Best answer: You sound like an ideal girl to bring home to meet the folks, and your boyfriend's mom sounds like one of those stereotypical mothers who paradoxically wants her son to be happy while suspiciously surveying women he dates as potential usurpers for his love.

Make as little fuss about the meat as possible. Ask to make a small meal for yourself, maybe even a day in advance so you're not in the kitchen during the hubbub, and do your best to not get in the way. Conservative Midwesterners view vegetarianism as gray area between a dietary fad and the occult. My Ohio family literally goes into hives when contemplating any Thanksgiving dish without meat.

As for making conversation with this overbearing mother, why not stick with the obvious common ground? Ask her tons of questions about her son. This signals to her that you're deeply committed to Boyfriend while conceding her superiority as an information source. What was he like growing up? Is that a picture of Boyfriend and his brother?

In general, people like to feel important and necessary, especially stay-at-home moms whose kids have left home, so defer to her. Let her be the Alpha Female for the time being. Ask her about what to see while you're here, if she's read the latest Sue Monk Kidd book, whatever. You're over-thinking your ability to win people over, even though your post clearly signals strong social awareness and excellent manners. These are crucial traits when a family is silently wondering if you're a good fit for a future daughter-in-law (because even if you're not considering this, Mom almost definitely is).
posted by zoomorphic at 10:37 AM on November 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Is it rude for me to offer to cook a dish or two over the weekend or suggest ways to make her recipes vegetarian?

I don't think your first visit is the time to do this. You can offer to help out in the kitchen, but I definitely would not try to change her recipes, even if just a small change would make the dish vegetarian at this point. But before you arrive or sometime during the visit I would stop at a grocery store and pick up whatever you need for yourself. Try to minimize what needs to be put in the fridge since space will be at a premium. They will become more accomodating with time, but give them a few visits first.

FWIW, I think it was sorta rude of her to send you meat in the mail with instructions for cooking, but there's no reason to meet rudeness with rudeness.

A nice bouquet of flowers upon your arrival would be a lovely hostess gift. Or a vase or some sort of fancy candle. Maybe a holiday wreath? Something decorative but not too personal.

I'd try to stop thinking of his mom as "just a stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands," if you can. I don't think you're doing yourself any favors with this. I would decline to accept money from her for doing things like cleaning your boyfriend's apartment, but would rather look on that sort of request as a favor to her rather than something I was hired to do. I think this leaves you in a better place in the power dynamic.

What do you want to do during the financial discussions? Are you interested, or do you want to find a place to hide? If your relationship works out in the long term these are the sorts of discussions you should be having with your boyfriend, and if you don't have them with your own family it might be helpful for you to make like a fly on the wall during them so that you get some idea of how to conduct such a discussion. It might not hurt to stick around for them, is what I'm saying.

Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 10:40 AM on November 10, 2008

Best answer: disclaimer: i am totally amateur psychoanalyzing based on what's above. I could be dead wrong and I apologize in advance if I am. I just have been in these situations.

Number one, make sure that you know where you can get food you can eat. Because I guarantee you, from what you've written above, that there will be nothing or little suitable for you to eat. It's going to be the kind of thing where you're presented with a dish of spinach and then you notice the bacon bits. "Is there bacon in here?" "Oh, just a little bit." THey don't understand and they aren't taking it seriously.

You cannot offer to teach this woman how to cook in her own kitchen, so please don't put yourself in that situation. It's not rude to offer, but she will take it that way. See number two below.

Number two, your boyfriend needs to be prepared to strongly defend your dietary choices. If you are presented with nothing suitable to eat, he needs to stand up for you and make sure that either something is provided, or that you are allowed to prepare something you can eat. You need to discuss this with him NOW and he needs to agree to it. He might even want to make a phone call now and say that you've asked if you could cook one or two dishes, but that could also make her feel as though you feel her cooking will be inadequate.

If you don't eat right you are going to be even more strung out and self conscious. Bring some energy bars so you can at least get something in you. Will you have any access to transportation so you could go out and get somewhere you can get food? Make sure you know about this before you get there. What's within walking distance and will it be open? Call them. Now. Google is your friend. I found vegetarian food in MEMPHIS one time.

I'm going to interpret "family time" as meaning that they expect you to spend all of your time with them and not go out gallivanting around the city. I would ditch any desire you have to "see a bit of the city" because no matter how trivial you think the amount of time will be, she will consider it rude. Take your cues on this from your boyfriend. Discuss it in advance, BEFORE you get there, or at least on the plane. Don't express a desire, don't mention that you've never been there.

Finally, if they initiate a conversation you perceive as awkward, yes, you just sit there. DO NOT OFFER ADVICE. Do not engage in the conversation. If you are asked something, politely say something like, "I wouldn't want to intrude". Even if pushed, do not offer an honest opinion. Hedge. Lie.

Do not say anything about his parents to him, even if he is in the middle of a rant about how terrible they are. It is one thing for someone in the family to bash them, it is something else for someone outside to do it. Let him vent, say things like "I know this is difficult for you" or "you're holding up well". Be neutral. Very neutral.

Making an impression in this case is all about being cordial and polite but VERY NEUTRAL. They already think you're some kind of commie whacko with the vegetarian thing. Don't worry about being outgoing. Just focus on quiet and polite. Constantly offer to help with housework. If she says "oh i'm fine" then find something like pouring water or sweeping or something, anything.

In terms of a host gift, ask your boyfriend for help on this. I have before said that candy and wine should be avoided the first time because neurotic parents can read into those gifts. Flowers, a plant, a small keepsake box made from local craftspeople.

Figure out where you can go to get some kind of down/alone time. You will go insane without it. Talk to the boyfriend about it now. He must already know what they're going to do in terms of sleeping arrangements. Are you expected to bed down on a couch in the living room?

Make sure you have a robe and slippers.
Bring a book to read, but make sure it is something not too out there.
I recommend Bach Rescue Remedy to help with anxiety.
Don't drink too much. In fact, if you can avoid drinking at all, even a glass of wine, do so.

Hopefully there's an ally for you in the brother's girlfriend, and at least there are some other people for you to hide behind. I don't mean to make this sound horrible but in case you couldn't tell, this is actually something that happened to me (it was Missouri in my case). I survived. You will too.
posted by micawber at 10:44 AM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think that other than making a veggie dish for yourself and to share I also wouldn't press the vegetarian issue. I certainly wouldn't ask her to change what she's preparing. She's probably made the same thing for this holiday for years and it's sort of a tradition so she might be offended. I had the opposite problem once... visiting a boyfriend's parents who were all vegetarians or vegans and I was a meat eater. They made me meat! It was hilarious. Being from the Midwest I can say that vegetarianism is getting more popular in the cities and suburbs but it's not really looked well upon still in a lot of places. Definitely bring snacks and be aware that it won't occur to the mom that beef stock, bacon bits etc. make a meal or salad non-vegetarian. Bring snacks and if you're picky make sure to ask about everything.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:48 AM on November 10, 2008

Part of their role as the hosts is to find out about the food limitations of all their guests. That being said, pay attention to how something is made to make sure it is ok for you. Don't be afraid to ask if there are ingredients you do not eat in any particular dish.

If they ask why you don't eat meat, the most simple answer is "I do not like it." It is also an answer that is very hard to argue with. If they press, you can ask if they have particular foods they do not eat because they do not like. There will be. There always are foods people are not fond of eating.
posted by onhazier at 10:51 AM on November 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the fantastic advice so far! I just want to clarify one point about the travel arrangements. Normally for holidays-with-boyfriend's-families, I cook a dish or two at home for myself and others to share and bring it along, as some of you have suggested. However, we'll be flying out of California at 6:30 am Thanksgiving morning and arriving in IN mid-afternoon, and I guess we'll be met at the airport by his parents or his brother. As such, I'm not sure how the logistics of cooking ahead would work, or of stopping at a grocery store without being rude to pick up something to bring or flowers, etc. I could maybe get flowers at the airport? I don't have a problem not eating too much at the actual dinner or picking at side dishes or keeping myself well-snacked, but I don't want to seem rude doing that.
posted by booknerd at 10:53 AM on November 10, 2008

Pack Luna bars. Lots of them. Eat them in secret.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:56 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, don't be offended if no one else even tries the 'scary vegetarian' dish. My mom won't even go to an Indian restaurant because they don't serve beef.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:59 AM on November 10, 2008

This was me exactly fifteen-odd years ago. I was new to the Midwest and living in Chicago; the guy's parents invited me down to suburban Indianapolis for Thanksgiving. For me, a Montrealer, it was culture shock on a whole lot of levels: on top of everything else I'd pretty much never been to a suburb before.

Of course I brought a couple of nice bottles of wine; what else would you bring to a holiday dinner? Um, WRONG. And instead of my boyfriend's financial status, I had to listen to his overbearing mom harangue him about his clothes and hair.

Plus there was a mini-crisis surrounding an aunt who threatened not to show up if I came, since she didn't approve of the two of us living together. (In the end she buckled, and we got along fine; the relationship's over, but the aunt and I still talk occasionally.)

I wasn't really a vegetarian, just someone who hardly ever eats meat. In a way you're better off with that boundary; I couldn't gracefully avoid the onslaught of grease.

I'm sorry to ramble, but reading your question triggered a hilarious cascade of memories. In short, I managed to get some downtime via long walks/runs. That neutrality micawber mentions? Difficult as hell to maintain, but do it if you can. And take some almonds to munch on.
posted by tangerine at 11:11 AM on November 10, 2008

I'd start by accepting that the emphasis family time + them paying for ticket = not seeing 'the city.' You can console yourself with the fact that there really isn't much of a 'city' to Indianapolis, so you're not missing much -- it's really more of an unholy density of strip malls rising out of a cornfield, with maybe 7 total blocks of walkable town (divided into about 4 different neighborhoods).

As far as the food goes, I'd recommend talking to the matriarch yourself. Talk about how you love the traditions of Thanksgiving, and how the food traditions in particular make it so special. Then mention that it would mean so much to you to be able to share one of your family's traditions with them at the meal, and would she mind terribly if you prepared one of your family's traditional dishes? This way, it's not about the food alone -- it's about respecting the tradition, sharing something of yourself with their family, and returning their generosity.
posted by amelioration at 11:12 AM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It will probably be fine. That said, if you've ever had any experience with meditation or other relaxation techniques, they may come in handy. It's weird to go from a space where you and your boyfriend are a united team to one in which your bond is considered one of the less significant ones in the house [as opposed to parent-kid or mom-dad sorts of things] Many parents make an effort to be gracious good hosts but clearly some of them don't. So, love your boyfriend and support him and trust he'll do the same for you, try as hard as possible to not get your hackles up about anything and when things get hinky, as they inevtiyably do, just remind yourself that you are (or aspire to be, temporarily) the smiling buddha letting all wordly cares slide down over your happy buddha belly. A lot of times just thinking this silly thought helps snap me out of the moment and I can say "Okay Jessamyn maybe it's time for you to go for a walk"
posted by jessamyn at 11:19 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really wouldn't "offer" to modify dishes his mother is thinking of preparing. Also, try not to in any other way highlight your vegitarianism unless you absolutely need to, ie they're force feeding you sausages (ha ha). That's your issue, not theirs. I love the idea of downing a luna bar or two when no one's looking. The idea is to be as pleasant and go-with as possible. Small talk can be dicey. Look around their house - what do they put out? Ask about that. Family photos? Who's in them? Taken any vacations lately? Whenever possible, when they respond, bring up something from your own life that is similar/comparable. Just keep going like that. They probably don't really want or need to know much about you other than that you make their son happy and do things that they would otherwise approve of. Just highlight the ways you're just like them, and if you can't find any - start asking questions, aka people love talking about themselves. It's pretty clear that your bf has expressed to them that he very much likes you and is serious about you, otherwise they wouldn't be flying you around the country. You are, in a sense, being auditioned. I don't say that to freak you out, but calling a spade a spade is sometimes helpful. In terms of gifts, ask your bf what they like to do, eat, invest in, etc. and bring them something that reflects that. I'm a fan of bringing gifts that indicate I've done a little research on the person, as opposed to taking it as an opportunity to "share" some of my likes with them. If all else fails, a really nice cashmere or wool blanket is my go to for parental unit house warming. Barring that, if applicable, top shelf booze for the dad, cookware for the mom. Def. bring the gifts with you - you want to be low stress the day of travel and not have to go anywhere on the way to their house or that day. Re: conversations regarding money, etc., I'd ask your bf what he wants you to do. It's _his_ personal issues that are getting aired. Clearly his parents don't care that they're potentially violating his privacy vis a vis your presence but he might. I'd take his cue on that. Politely excusing yourself from the conversation - tired/nap, bathroom, left something in the car... just make something up - may both one, support him, and two, hopefully cue his parents that they need to be more aware of the types of things they discuss between the two of you.
posted by smallstatic at 11:27 AM on November 10, 2008

Oh yeah, they fly you out = they make the schedule. I wouldn't mention wanting to "see the city" unless it's specifically brought up and/or offered.
posted by smallstatic at 11:28 AM on November 10, 2008

micawber pretty much nailed it. And the poster who said focus on what she loves best, her sons. So ask to see the family albums, comment on likenesses, or events shown, in a positive way. "Wow, that's a big parade, how many people live in X town? " Or "this Y family event looks beautifully organised, the decor, dresses, etc, how long did that take?" Did he really do Z?"

With the food thing stack up on bars. Even if they are trying to be polite, it may be quite passive-agressive. My wealthy German in-laws made a game of seeing how beautifully they could show up my poor Irish working class background. " Oh, we bought the best quality Irish smoked salmon" which I had never eaten and so when I said politely "It's lovely" they had a good giggle that it had come discount from Lidl. No matter what you bring as a side dish in Tupperware, you will probably be the only one eating it. Don't get upset at that.

Yes, there is a tendancy for your partner to go from independant minded man to Son while he is at home. That is almost psychologically inevitable and to be honest I did the same when I went home and was more Daughter than partner at times. Simple things like his Mom asking him to do X, which will take a few hours, and he hops off to do it without checking what you will do in his absence. As Jess said just have a chat about what will happen in that kind of situation.

My escape was to express an serious interest in gardening (yes even in the middle of winter there is something to see!) and I took a trowel to do a bit of weeding as a stress reliever!

good luck, it won't last long and really, some of the passive agressive behaviour can probably be directly explained by how likely it is that you are the one to capture their Prince away from a more suitable Mid-West corn-fed cow-milking maiden who exisits in their imagination. So be flattered, be positive and survive.
posted by Wilder at 11:38 AM on November 10, 2008

This isn't specific advice (there's a lot of useful stuff in the thread), but more of a broad helpful hint derived from ten years of dealing with a very difficult in law. Make sure you've been really open and honest with your boyfriend about your concerns and fears so that if you feel freaked while you're there, he won't feel like you've sprung it on him out of nowhere. It's absolutely, crucially important that he knows how you feel and has your back. He needs to be a support system and to stand up for you and your interests.

Obviously, he doesn't have to be a dick and throw up big walls with his family, but he needs to be on your team and not let you feel lost at sea. This may be hard for him; when people get around their families, they tend to fall into old patterns. But one of the important transitions into a long term relationship is that sense that the two people are a team with their own patterns who put each other first.

My boy had a hard time, at first, figuring out how to make it clear to the difficult inlaw that I was important to him and that giving me a hard time wasn't acceptable. He's still working on it. But what's better now is that I absolutely know that he is doing everything he can to make it easier for me. Plan times to decompress and talk about how you're both feeling. Maybe even come up with a code word for "Eeek, help, change the subject/avoid this activity/help get me out of the room!"
posted by mostlymartha at 11:47 AM on November 10, 2008

Having to cook when there's going to be a vegetarian at the table freaks my mother out, even though she knows vegetarians are just as well-nourished as meat-eaters. She feels pressured to cook a meatless dinner for everyone, she's not used to it; she doesn't resent it at all, but she gets very stressed.

Your boyfriend's mother has certain ideas and assumptions, and food is important to her. Try to present yourself as an ally, and ask how you can make things easy for her, and less of an issue. I suggest you come out and say to her, "Let's talk about food." Tell her you're happy to eat the non-meat parts of the meal, and that she can cook the way she always does. She'll probably be very relieved, and she might want to ask questions like, What the heck DO you eat? You can tell her about your usual sources of protein, and ask how she'd feel if you wanted to fix yourself some simple things. Your boyfriend can help you out with this discussion.

Meddlesome people are nervous and afraid, and that's why they're often controlling and nosy. If I keep that in mind and try to be kind to them, it keeps me from getting too irritated. They relax a little and don't see me as such a problem,. Try it with your boyfriend's mother, and she may worry a lot less that you and your boyfriend will go off and ignore them, that you look down on them, and everything else on the long list of reasons why they're uneasy about the two of you.
posted by wryly at 11:48 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend's parents live out in the country and are socially conservative and somewhat close-minded; when i read your post, it sounds like you're in a similar situation, so with that in mind, here's what I've found helps to make a good impression:

-First and foremost, try to put them at ease about you--the (relatively) liberal outsider--coming into their house. In my case, my girlfriend's parents seem to be intimated by me (intellectual job, ethnic name, nerd glasses) so I try to emphasize my dudeness. In other words, try to emphasize how you're a regular ol' girl and not into changing their boy into something they're not familiar with.

-Pretend you're interested in them, if you aren't. Ask his parents about their lives; their family history; how much the like living in the house, etc.

-Ignore his mom's continuing intrusiveness (even though she needs to let him be an adult). If she says stuff about how her boy needs to shape up, vocally assent to the stuff with which you agree, but ignore the stuff you don't. That way, you'll look like a caring girlfriend but still keep most of your integrity.

-Lastly, after reading the other posters' comments here, I will offer this advice which may be unpopular: consider abandoning the idealism and politics of your chosen diet for the weekend. Taking a hard line against the house's hegemonic ideologies (e.g. "meat rules") may show your strong character (to deaf ears, probably) but won't win you any supporters, especially with people who just don't understand the concept of not eating meat. (This guy's mom sounds like a case. If you take a stand for vegetarians everywhere and make it clear that you're going to be "difficult", the philosophy is going to fly right over her head, and instead she's going to perceive it as a personal offense.)
When in Rome... consider garnering the emperor's favor.
posted by hpliferaft at 11:51 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

With that time frame, you are not going to be able to cook anything vegetarian, and I would not expect to be able to contribute to the dinner in any way. A stay-at-home mom has her whole menu already planned, and I agree that you should probably bring very low expectations about considerations. Pack enough food to keep you going, just in case. It will be nice if she makes an effort for you, but I wouldn't expect it. Hostess gift: have a holiday floral arrangement delivered beforehand, or something else delivered so it's already there ahead of you. You'll start off early with a nice reputation before you even arrive. Family time means you are expected to stay close for most of the time, I'm thinking Thursday and Friday for sure but you may get some time off on Saturday. Or do some research and suggest a family outing that you all might enjoy. A "girls only" quick trip out with mom and the other girlfriend might go a long way towards building a relationship, even if it's not something you would normally do, like the mall. Or even the grocery store or running a few errands. Any family discussions about finances, etc, can be skipped with a polite comment of "I'm sure you all would like some privacy to discuss this." Or you can stay if you're interested but DO NOT OFFER YOUR OPINIONS on this unless you are asked.
posted by raisingsand at 11:52 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit confused by your question and your clarification -- you say that in the past you've brought dishes-to-share with boyfriend's families, but have you spent a holiday with THIS boyfriend before? Just clarifying that maybe that would give you some insight into how territorial the mother was in her kitchen.

General advice, though -- maybe speak with her in advance about something you could make "as a side dish" for everyone to share that could in truth be a main dish for you. You know, bring it up as "I'm so grateful for your invitation, but I'd really love to help in some way -- say, I have a very good recipe for such-and-such that I'm sure would be WONDERFUL along with your turkey, would it be helpful if I contributed that?" And there are a couple good options I've found here -- I served a big polenta mold with squash and carmelized onions at a half-vegetarian-half-not Thanksgiving dinner I threw once -- it was enough of a "main dish" for the vegetarians and also served as a side dish for those who had turkey. There's also a recipe I've seen for "pumpkin lasagna" that would also work well.

I've found this kind of stealth approach works -- you're yielding to her as Boss Queen of the meal planning, but you're offering help while secretly arranging things so you benefit as well. (As for the cooking en route or not -- some recipes do okay with cooking up to a certain point and then getting stored for later, and I think the polenta is like this -- cook it up to a certain point and bring it on the plane, and then it's just a matter of, "okay, this just needs to get tucked into an oven for an hour and it's good to go." Or, if she actually welcomes the idea of "kitchen help" -- "oh, that's a wonderful idea, dear!" -- then maybe give her a shopping list and you'll just take it from there in her kitchen.)

As for the discussing money plans in front of you -- eh, some parents are just weird. (The mother of a guy I once dated flat-out told me that she had pretty much assumed he and I were having sex, and she was perfectly okay with that, just for the record. I just blinked a few times and siezed the soonest possible opportunity to change the subject. Again: some parents are just REALLY weird.) I'd have a conversation with your boyfriend about how he'd like to handle it, but if you can both take the approach of seeing it as something to laugh off -- a sort of eye-rolly, "oh, there they go again," that may help. Maybe follow his lead -- if he looks like he's getting upset, maybe just a quiet hand on his arm or just a quiet, "hon, do you want me to leave?" may be enough to bring things to a halt. But if it looks like he's just kind of inwardly chuckling and saying "oh, there they go again," just laugh it off to yourself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:52 AM on November 10, 2008

Best answer: It's weird to go from a space where you and your boyfriend are a united team to one in which your bond is considered one of the less significant ones in the house

Absolutely. I watched my bf go through this during our first Thanksgiving at my house, and even without any of the other issues you have going on, it was hard for him! My family is skeptical about newcomers, and from the sound of his rather overconcerned mother, his family might be, too. If your main goal is to keep the peace, do no harm, and be supportive of your SO (which are great first-Thanksgiving goals), then keep this in mind: don't get anxious on him. If you think people are freezing you out, don't like you, are purposely sticking it to you ('it's just a little broth to flavor the stuffing! broth isn't meat!')...shrug it off. Don't expect this to be your best couple time, travel time, or intimacy time. Have plenty of those good suggestions ready for taking care of yourself or getting out of the family and house dynamic for a while. Bring music and a good book, a sketchbook, some work you need to get done. The thing is that if your boyfriend is already stressed about his parents, what they think of him, what they think of you, what they think of him AND you, how you're doing, whether you're feeling mad/isolated, who is starting to dislike who, whether you're going to be pissed off at him, whether you like them...he's going to have a lot on his plate. So aim to make this as easy on him as possible - don't have high expectations that you're going to be couplerific this weekend.Give him the freedom to deal with his family as he needs to, let him figure out how to normalize your presence, but you stay copacetic and be as independent as you can. Above all, don't take it personally. With sensitive families, acceptance can take time.
posted by Miko at 11:56 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, I'm seeing two different camps of advice on the food side here. On one side are people saying not to mention it until I absolutely need to and to just eat what I can of what's available, while making sure I have snacks for myself. On the other side are people suggesting I talk to his mom about it ahead of time, either offering to bring something or my own (which would be difficult), or just saying that I'm happy to eat any side dishes, etc., and not to worry about doing anything overly special for me. For the people suggesting I speak with her ahead of time, when should I have this conversation? It would seem unspeakably rude for me to just spring that sort of thing on her right before Thanksgiving dinner, which is when we'll be arriving. I could email her ahead of time though, if that would be appropriate. If I did that, how long before the trip should I do that? A couple days, a week, just to set her at ease if she's worried about cooking for me? EmpressCallipygos, I've never spent a holiday with THIS boyfriend before... I was just referring to past, in-town boyfriends.

To everyone saying to give up the idea of seeing the city and not to mention it at all, thank you. It didn't occur to me that bringing it up or suggesting things for us to do together would be rude, but now that I think about it, it seems obvious. I'll be sure not to do that. My boyfriend did express a desire to visit some vintage shops and record shops in the area while we're there though... would it be rude for him to bring it up? On the one hand, it's his family and it seems like it's his decision, but on the other hand, since they're flying us out, maybe I should just urge him to lay low and save it for another time so they don't think that I'm surreptitiously dragging him away from family activities.

I'd try to stop thinking of his mom as "just a stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands," if you can. I don't think you're doing yourself any favors with this.
Onlyconnect, thanks for this. That's a very good point.

Do not say anything about his parents to him, even if he is in the middle of a rant about how terrible they are.
And this, micawber. He does tend to get a bit stressed with his family although he loves them, but on such a short visit it might not be an issue. However, this is a good thing to remember for me.

Thanks for all the great advice, everybody. Keep it coming!
posted by booknerd at 12:09 PM on November 10, 2008

I really just want to say GOOD LUCK! And the number one thing is to get your boyfriend on your side now about there needing to be something appropriate for you to eat.

My midwestern (now very ex) boyfriend's mother told my boyfriend that she didn't really believe I was allergic to tree nuts and that was why she lied about there being walnuts in the stuffing. Apparently she was trying to show him that I was a lying California girl who didn't really deserve his love. One very near trip to the hospital when my epi-pen couldn't be immediatly located seemed to have cured her of that but she never apologized. Obviously this is an extreme case but they need to take your meal requirements seriously and that is something only your boyfriend can do.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:19 PM on November 10, 2008

Because I was in this camp:

For the people suggesting I speak with her ahead of time, when should I have this conversation? It would seem unspeakably rude for me to just spring that sort of thing on her right before Thanksgiving dinner, which is when we'll be arriving. I could email her ahead of time though, if that would be appropriate. If I did that, how long before the trip should I do that? A couple days, a week, just to set her at ease if she's worried about cooking for me?

I'd check with your boyfriend about this, actually, because there are a few factors here. If she's seriously Martha-Stewart about Thanksgiving to the point that she's kept notes on everything for the past 20 years, it actually may be safer to ditch the idea of making anything and just sweetly ask if she wants "help" -- peeling potatoes, tossing the salad, something like that.

Or if she's like my mother, she may be trying to please everybody and may be torn between "oh, dear, I'm not allowed to serve meat to booknerd, she'll choke to death" (or whatever she's afraid will happen) and "but on the other hand, Uncle Sid's so fussy and he'll just lose it if we leave the bacon out of the succotash like we did in 1987". If your boyfriend senses she may be torn like that, maybe a nice sunny email within the week this week saying that you're "looking forward to the trip! I'd love to help with the meal however I can -- say, I have a good recipe for blah blah blah, if you think that would work and want me to help make that, that may be fun," would give her a chance to jump on it as A Solution ("ah-HA! Booknerd can eat that, we can put bacon in Uncle Sid's succotash, and everyone wins!") And then you have time to work out logistics (what she shops for, if anything, or whether you bring it with you) and also creates the space for her to bring up any concerns she may have ("....incidentally, while we're talking about this -- if I just flavored something with salt pork and then took it right out, what would you say about that?")

Or if she's just plain "it's unnatural for people not to eat meat!" then...I would also drop the idea for the time being because Thanksgiving is fraught enough emotionally to try to press An Issue. As for what to actually eat, I'd definitely take your own health into consideration first (i.e., if you know that eating meat would cause physical harm, don't), but maybe....slide a little bit for just this once. In later years, as you come to know each other better, this can be adapted, but big servings of the vegetable side dishes plus maybe a bite or two of Uncle Sid's succotash with bacon would smooth things over (maybe pick out the bacon bits and hide them under a lettuce leaf or something).

But there could be a lot of responses she's already having to Thanksgiving, and seeing where she is on that could tell you a lot. (I agree, though, that springing something on her the day of would be nuts.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:29 PM on November 10, 2008

If you're comfortable engaging the mother in an email conversation about food, then I'd consider that as your best option. I would start that conversation now, so that she has time to prepare - its always possible that your willingness to be "easy" will spark her interest in being "accommodating" with regards to food.

Either way, I doubt it would hurt to have a conversation (sooner, rather than later) with her directly about food.
posted by CorporateHippy at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2008

I am in the camp that says not to be fussy about food at all. I discourage calling ahead, asking about it, etc. Of course I agree that being a gracious host means asking your guest about preferences and dietary problems, and serving them something they can eat, and not lying about what's in the food. But if there is any hostility or resistance, even unacknowledged, then those gracious things might not happen. In these cases, you can't win.

Vegetarians, as you know, have a reputation in some non-veg-friendly circles for "just needing attention" or "needing to be special." If that's the underlying attitude, then anything you do, no matter how legitimate your reasons, may be interpreted as being extra needy or demanding. I think the best way to go is what you've offered - to help make a meal - and provide your own snacks to back your meals up. Be totally self-sufficient, in case you need to be. Don't begin by asking for special accommodations - accept them if offered, happily, but it can be offputting to people who aren't kindly disposed to you to begin a holiday with a list of your parameters.

So stock up on snacks, and eat what's on the table at meals, selecting the meat-free options. For snacks, I recommend nuts - they're filling and high in protein, so they'll balance out the starchfest you're likely to take in at meals. Have salads and fruit when offered. Maybe a little jar of peanut butter. It's only a few days - you're not going to starve or anything. Family peace and a happy weekend is worth a little 'give' on what you eat meals.

As far as city excursions, if your bf is willing to state the plans and make arrangements, then by all means. If he's the one to say "On Friday we're going to some vintage stores!" then all is well. I think people are just discouraging you from hatching plans to get out and do a lot of sightseeing when, in fact, the family's priority may be on visiting together. If you don't go into it with your own agenda, you can remain flexible enough to adapt to the family's agenda. If you do go in with your own agenda, you may find you get disappointed because you're not in control of the schedule.
posted by Miko at 12:32 PM on November 10, 2008

I think raisingsand has it exactly right, and the idea of sending a flower arrangement ahead of time is genius--you won't have to deal with it on the plane or on the way there, and it always seems special to get flowers delivered. Plus, like she says, it gets them in a positive frame of mind before you get there!
They also sound like the kind of people who would like a Thanksgiving-y flower arrangement, like maybe this or this or even this.

I would let him deal with his mom on the vegetarian issue, but ask him about it before you go so you know what to expect. I also concur with whoever said to repeatedly offer to help with housework. I'm sure they will refuse at first but just say something like "can't I dry the dishes/peel the carrots/snap the beans, I like to have something to do with my hands" or whatever. I know you would anyway, but it bears repeating. The way to a midwestern woman's heart is through the sink!

However, I have to warn you the most boring weekend I ever spent in my life was a Thanksgiving with cousins in Indiana--we had dinner with over 40 relatives where everyone watched football and didn't talk to me, and then we (me and my mom's cousin and his wife) went back to their house and did not leave it for the rest of the weekend. I didn't bring enough reading material and the only thing I could find to save myself from total despair was several years of back issues of Consumer Reports.

Anyway, it'll be over soon, and maybe it'll be fun! It could hardly be worse than mine! Another possibility for a hostess gift is a board game, if they play them--it would at least give you something to do together that's fairly neutral.
Maybe something like Yahtzee or Boggle, with minimal opportunities for arguing.
posted by exceptinsects at 12:34 PM on November 10, 2008

i am so sick and tired of all the coasters viewing the midwest as some fucked up redneck wasteland where they only eat red meat, and rare at that. get the fuck over yourselves. stop looking down on us because we don't eat sushi (you know, we're too far from an ocean to get quality seafood, and lake trout doesn't make great sushi); stop looking down on us because some of us are more conservative than some of you; and stop assuming that just because we're in the corn belt we don't have any culture at all. (i say this as someone who spent 22 years in michigan, lives in philly now, and would love to live in mi again.)

your boyfriend has a meddlesome and annoying mother. that has nothing to do with indiana and everything to do with her. she's never (presumably) had to cook for a vegetarian. again, very little to do with indiana. my advice to you on this point (as someone who eats meat and who has a vegan partner who's had to do this) let your vegetarianism slip a little bit if it will keep the peace. sure, she made the stuffing with chicken broth instead of veggie broth; it just doesn't occur to people that things like that (or gelatin, or honey, or fish) are not vegetarian. it wasn't meat, so it's vegetarian! it's not because they're horrible midwesterners, it's just because they have never had to cook with a vegetarian in mind. eat the potatoes. eat the cranberry sauce. eat the pumpkin pie. there is so much to eat at a thanksgiving dinner that is veggie-friendly, even if it isn't the "main course."

don't get involved in family squabbles. don't defend your boyfriend to his parents (even if they're wrong and you're right) as it will only make you an adversary that has to be overcome.

do ask to see pictures or hear stories about his embarassing childhood.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:44 PM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

If they ask why you don't eat meat, the most simple answer is "I do not like it." It is also an answer that is very hard to argue with. If they press, you can ask if they have particular foods they do not eat because they do not like. There will be. There always are foods people are not fond of eating.

Simple, yes. Perfect answer, no. You're inviting the "but you've never had meatballs like MY meatballs" attack there. Allergies/medical and religious issues are the only "can't eat it" thing that will get you off the hook without an argument in many cases, I fear. Although then you're inviting them to discuss your physical health, which also isn't fun (I *sarcasm* loved *sarcasm* talking all about my thyroid 'problems' with my future MIL for months when my doc tried a low dose of meds to fix something related...).

As far as the food goes, I'd recommend talking to the matriarch yourself. Talk about how you love the traditions of Thanksgiving, and how the food traditions in particular make it so special. Then mention that it would mean so much to you to be able to share one of your family's traditions with them at the meal, and would she mind terribly if you prepared one of your family's traditional dishes? This way, it's not about the food alone -- it's about respecting the tradition, sharing something of yourself with their family, and returning their generosity.

THIS, on the other hand, will work beautifully in almost all cases. Position it as "it's just not Thanksgiving without my mom's walnut loaf!"

(Choose carefully here...go with something you can fill up on if need be, but isn't too "weird" and does not under any circumstances contain the word "tofu," which for some midwesterners pretty much equals "bizarro commie food." Note I said 'some' and not 'all' -- grain of salt).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:53 PM on November 10, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, one other follow-up on the host gift question, since it might be a bit of a touchy thing. Normally I'd bring a bottle of wine and some chocolates from a local chocolatier near here. I know his mom likes chocolate, so I still might do that. I really like the idea of flowers, but a lot of these arrangements and bouquets and things are a bit pricey. The reason they're flying both of us out, although I'm not completely comfortable with accepting such a large expense from people I don't know well, as peachfuzz mentioned, is that I'm in a really bad financial situation right now, and his parents have been erm, informed about that. Mainly, I have a lot of debt I'm trying to pay down (student loans, credit cards, etc.) and I'm just barely scraping by, and in his concern over my situation, being the sweet-hearted boy he is, my boyfriend has mentioned this to his mom.

His family is pretty darn well off, by my standards (dad is a doctor, they have plenty of money to travel whenever they want and have offered to pay for a lot of things for my bf), but they're incredibly frugal. Frugal to the extent of his mother sending him emails suggesting he switch to store-brand soap to save money. I don't want any expenditure I'd make on a host gift to be taken the wrong way to make it seem like I'm irresponsible with my money or not frugal enough, but I want to be considerate and show my appreciation. Would some home-baked cookies or something be more in order, given this situation? Or... I don't know. It might be a little late to knit a scarf for his mom or something, but I could try to whip something out quickly. That might be appropriate, yes?
posted by booknerd at 1:23 PM on November 10, 2008

I write knitting books for a living, so I'm decidedly pro-knitting, booknerd, but that *might* come off as a little personal (scarf) -- what about, instead, some supernice knitted washcloths out of plain-colored cotton? That way you can indicate an *interest* in the kitchen without being all barge-y-inny, and seem all domestic and give her something useful all at the same time. Gives you an excuse to hang out in the kitchen and see if she's putting beef stock in the veg soup, anyway...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:27 PM on November 10, 2008

In this situation, it might be okay to just send an email (maybe from your bf) that says something to the effect that you're really looking forward to Thanksgiving, and ask if it's okay to bring cheese ravioli or a lasagne or whatever. You can probably get some insight from the response:

If she says not to bother, and that she's making some special vegetarian adjustments or dishes, you're okay.

If she tells you that's a great idea, it could mean that she's relieved she doesn't have to cook something special. Or maybe she likes ravioli. But you're guaranteed of having something to eat.

There are probably a boatload of other responses and ways you can read into them, so this could be either insightful or even more stress-inducing, but I figure knowing is always better than not knowing.

All the power bars in the world won't help you at the dinner table if you have to space the entire meal out over six bites of green beans.
posted by sageleaf at 1:30 PM on November 10, 2008

I'll chime in with misanthropicsarah above. My extended family with roots in Indiana made a good go at accommodating my vegetarianism, and while they missed on some things, they generally had at least potatoes (mashed or baked), rolls, green bean casserole, a cheese plate, pickles, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and a vegetable without meat seasoning on the table. They might even have a vegetarian bean dish or dressing, but don't count on it. If you can stomach it, have a don't ask/don't tell policy on the food.

I'm of the opinion that a stress relief trip out of the house is a good thing for everyone involved. Make some plans in advance with your boyfriend as a way to grab some privacy. I'm pretty certain that your host family will welcome an opportunity to unwind as well.

For family squabbles and uncomfortable conversations, just practice the art of meditation while nodding your head sagely. Or if they are like most families, there is either another conversation at the table or a TV in the background. Or if there are kids, find an excuse to talk to them.

On preview: I'd say go with a simple food gift under $30 that can be shared. Nothing decorative or durable unless you really, really know the host's tastes. While you may be poor and strapped for available cash, no one will consider you a spendthrift for showing up with a tasteful and frugal gift that can be shared.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:45 PM on November 10, 2008

(I'm coming at this as an ex-veg Ohioan whose family comes from the more southern, tofu-is-weird part of the state. Yes, you could count on finding some of the things KirkJobSluder has listed on the table, but I can't imagine -- having thrown up for HOURS the day I started eating meat again -- what poor booknerd might endure if there's secret meatiness hidden in innocuous-looking dishes...)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:50 PM on November 10, 2008

Meaty things have a habit of finding their way into seemingly vegetarian dishes. For example, my family makes their mashed potatoes with chicken broth, thus rendering it non-veggie-friendly. I wouldn't assume that anything on the table is 'safe' unless it's a cooked vegetable with no sauces or gravies, or something of that nature.

Coming from a family of complete carnivores, I must say that I still deal with ribbing about my food habits at every holiday. "Are ya gonna try the steak this year, finally?" Be prepared for people to question you, although they may not be as outspoken as my family is.

Eat the salad if there is one (hopefully they don't add the Bacos before serving) , bring nutrient-type bars, and if you can, take his mother aside and reassure her that you appreciate her inviting you to Thanksgiving dinner even if you didn't eat the giant food spread.
posted by rachaelfaith at 2:00 PM on November 10, 2008

Is it possible your bf's brother and his girlfriend can help with this situation? Since you'll be arriving on a plane that day, could brother/gf bring a dish that you can eat? If Mother knows brother's gf better than she knows you, it may be perceived as less threatening/confrontational/annoying for them to bring a dish or make a dish than it would be for you to do so. If nothing else, brother and gf can support you and bf in making sure there's some substantive veg food at each meal or getting out of the house to get something to eat.

My brother and I do this kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation coordination all the time to make sure we're putting up united front against my mother. (We learned after a miserable Thanksgiving where neither one of us could eat anything served other than the cranberry sauce and the beets.)
posted by weebil at 2:08 PM on November 10, 2008

hopefully they don't add the Bacos before serving

fwiw, Bacos actually contain zero bacon or other meat-type food. I understand a vegetarian might not like the taste of bacon, even if it's fake, but technically Bacos are vegetarian friendly!

posted by onlyconnect at 2:08 PM on November 10, 2008

Bacos are surprisingly vegetarian and kosher.

I'm just saying, certainly it might be one of those families that have a sadistic joy in slipping the hidden meat to the vegetarian. (Double entendre not intended.) Or you could end up in a household that is quite able and happy to accommodate you because many dishes on the table already are vegetarian (although probably not vegan.) My experiences have been that hoosier hosts are often quite accommodating and open about what's in the food at holiday dinners. Little Billy has food allergies (or so his parents think), cousin Joe has been on Atkins since the heart attack, while aunt Sue is on Mediterranean, Mary doesn't eat anything with gluten, and Kirk is just a picky eater who won't touch peas.

The point is that you don't know where the boyfriend's family is going to fall on that spectrum if you don't start talking with them. And, well, this is a reasonable litmus test for how well they are going to accommodate you in the future on a wide variety of issues. I don't see eye to eye with my partner's family on many things, but I can at least break bread with them, and that's pretty important.

You can probably suss this out with your boyfriend in advance if he knows the family recipes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:30 PM on November 10, 2008

Re: the gift, you are very astute to note that if they are frugal, and know that you are in a tough spot financially right now, anything that may raise eyebrows along the lines of pricey may not be the best idea. (Although I have to say, calling in the flowers and having them delivered _before_ you get there, so you can all marvel at how gorgeous your gift is when you do arrive, is pure genius. That's one for my archives.) Anyway, I love the chocolates idea. I would say anything in the neighborhood of $25 - $30 is probably appropriate. Again, good call on the cost issue. If you're into knitting, you could go that route, but it's so hard to tell what people's tastes are. I worry that knit stuff can look a little "craft-y" sometimes and that's not everyone's style, esp. parents.
posted by smallstatic at 2:40 PM on November 10, 2008

I've been the vegetarian at Thanksgiving but with a more easy to get along boyfriend's mom. It was intimidating to her to cook for a vegetarian. She didn't know what was ok or how hardcore I was about it (broth ok or not). My advice is to let your boyfriend act like he's wanting to be considerate of you and handle this conversation with his mom.

"Booknerd is so happy to have been invited to Thanksgiving and doesn't want to cause any extra work for you. I was wondering if you could make "mac and cheese (or insert other protein heavy food here)" as a side dish and she could eat that instead of turkey." This keeps you out of it so you don't look demanding and makes your boyfriend look thoughtful and sweet. He could also suggest getting some boca burgers or something easy to fix so she doesn't have to make separate meals for you.

I would still bring soy bars and nuts with you as backup. People don't seem to know that starch (pasta, rice, potatoes) does not equal protein but it's what they'll probably try to feed you. If you like dairy and eggs, you'll have a lot more options here.
When his mom says anything about you being veggie, apologize for being so much trouble and ask if there's anything you can do to help out. It helps make you look considerate and will hopefully make her want to be be more helpful in return.

Since the parents are paying your way there and want to spend family time, you should probably hang out there most of the time. From what you wrote, it seems like they still think of him as a teenager who will ditch them except for meal times if they don't make it clear that they spent the money for the tickets so they could see him.
If he wants to hit the record shops for a few hours, that's probably ok but major site seeing where you're gone all day probably isn't. Let your boyfriend be the one in charge of when and where you go and take all the blame if mom gets cranky. His mom, his problem to deal with. If your boyfriend does plan on hitting the record shops, it might be a good time to find a veggie friendly place to eat while you're out. The Nuvo (nuvo.net) is our free paper here and has a restaurant listing with a little carrot beside the veggie friendly places.

If you want some ideas for family time outside the house, going downtown to the circle to see the Christmas display or shopping in Brown county (nice artsy/craftsy stuff) are good but stick your boyfriend with suggesting it and say no problem if it gets shot down. Indy's not a bad place to visit but Nov. just isn't the best month for it. It's too cold to do outside stuff like the Arts Park (Art Center) or wander Broad Ripple. If you like blues tho, try to sneak in a late night visit to the Slippery Noodle downtown.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:46 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you boyfriend talk to his mom about the food ahead of time? Something like "We're so excited to come see you for Thanksgiving. Booknerd will kill me if she knew I asked, because she does not want any fuss about it, but can we talk about the menu so I can let her know what might have meat in it? I don't want you to change it, but I'll give her the heads up so we can stay out of your way that day. Who knows, maybe the smell of your amazing bacon-wrapped turkey will change her mind!". If she indicates any desire to accommodate you but cluelessness about how to do so, he can offer to email her some easy recipes you often cook for groups that are really easy.

I think it's suicide for you to talk to her about this, unless she invites it, but it should be completely within the boyfriend's realm to bring it up and pretend like he's doing it in secret.
posted by marylynn at 4:56 PM on November 10, 2008

Oh hooray, a subject I have some expertise in!

Vegetarianism confuses and frightens a lot of midwesterners. Make boyfriend explain to his mom that there needs to be something for you to eat. She needs to know that sneaking chicken grease and bacon bits into a dish might make you ill because your body doesn't know how to process it anymore. If you get pestered or teased about your diet, explain that you have a history of heart disease/cancer in your family (because who doesn't, right?) and that your meatless diet is one way you have of keeping healthy.

Otherwise, just expect that you might eat a meal consisting of mashed potatoes, white dinner rolls, green bean casserole and some cranberry sauce out of a can.

If there is a pet or small children at the family gathering, focus your attentions on playing with them.

Reading a book, zoning out with an ipod or some other activity is considered anti-social, but you can generally get away with flipping through a magazine or a newspaper. You could get away with knitting or working on some small portable craft project.

In many old school midwestern families, there is actually little chatting at length. Our kinfolk prefer to play cards, board games and to veg out in front of the TV. If one of the family members puts in a Larry the Cable Guy DVD, do your best to not express your offense at the jokes.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:34 PM on November 10, 2008

Response by poster: There are so many good answers here, I'm tempted to mark them all "best"... but I just picked a few that I thought were particularly helpful. His mom actually emailed him yesterday to clarify what I can and can't eat ("does she eat fish, eggs, chicken?), so it does sound like there will be things for me to eat, I just hope that she's not stressing too much over it.

I'm just going to go ahead and have one of those floral arrangements sent ahead of time, even though it's a bit more than $30. I'm sure if I just tell her I found a good deal on the internet they won't worry about the price, since online shopping is a bit of a mystery to them still, I think. At least that way I won't have to worry about bringing something with me and I do like the idea that it will make them favorable predisposed before we get there.

I will also be bringing plenty of books and knitting to keep myself occupied, although I'll be sure not to bust out a book and start reading unless someone else already is, for fear of looking anti-social. Sadly, their cat recently died so there will be no pets I can latch on to.

If anyone has additional advice or tips, I'll be watching this until I leave. Thanks again for all of the help. I'm feeling a bit more calm now.
posted by booknerd at 9:39 AM on November 11, 2008

you actually can find good deals online for flower arrangements... for example, if you are a AAA member, you get a %20 discount from FTD.com.

(sorry if that's a little off topic, but I plan on doing the same thing when visiting my boyfriend's family at Christmas).
posted by kidsleepy at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2008

Response by poster: I went with the cheapest arrangement exceptinsects posted, and found a $10 off coupon online, so it was only around $40 after delivery! Not much room for a card, but I wrote, "Happy Thanksgiving! I'm looking forward to our visit. Thank you for your hospitality and including me in your holiday celebration."

I just searched "teleflora coupon" in Google and there were codes for $10 off, 15% off, etc. I'm kind of amazed it actually worked. Hooray, internets!
posted by booknerd at 10:13 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm sure if I just tell her I found a good deal on the internet they won't worry about the price

I wouldn't even worry about it. They can understand the difference between "can afford a $40 bouquet, want to contribute" and "can afford a plane ticket for a short trip to people who aren't [at least right now] relations.

Classy thing to do and I'm sure they'll thank you. Also, it sounds great that she inquired about what you can eat...shows that she (a) cares and (b) has started to plan. Yay!

Have a great trip. Also, I totally wish I knew about searching for florist coupons before today...!
posted by Miko at 10:18 AM on November 11, 2008

His mom actually emailed him yesterday to clarify what I can and can't eat ("does she eat fish, eggs, chicken?), so it does sound like there will be things for me to eat...

Oh yay, best of all possible worlds!

I don't think she's stressing over this too much -- that is, she's probably stressing, but it sounds like she's the kind of Mom where Thanksgiving = trying to recreate a freakin' Normal Rockwell painting, so if accounting for a vegetarian guest weren't a factor she'd just be stressing about someone else anyway. (Hell, maybe there IS an Uncle Sid who'd raise hell if there wasn't any bacon in the succotash.)

But it sounds like things are falling together nicely. Have fun!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:40 AM on November 11, 2008

Meddlesome people are nervous and afraid, and that's why they're often controlling and nosy.

This bears repeating because it is true. Silently thinking this in your head can help you to avoid being on the defensive when his mom becomes controlling, meddlesome and nosy.
posted by jeanmari at 12:21 PM on November 11, 2008

I hope they like the flowers! Now I sort of feel responsible. :)
I'm glad to hear she is planning for you to have something to eat.

I'm sure it will be fine. Just assume the best possible motives for everyone's behavior.
posted by exceptinsects at 8:21 PM on November 11, 2008

Response by poster: Update time! The trip went remarkably well. His mom had actually gone to Whole Foods and bought a vegetarian turkey alternative for me, which was so sweet of her. On the first day, we went on a hike and found geodes and crinoid fossils. The next day we went to a play, and on Saturday it snowed. I made a snowman for the first time in my life (I'm from San Diego, folks), and my boyfriend and I walked around Broad Ripple for a bit. On Sunday, we cooked dinner for his parents, and that also went over pretty well. His mom said, "This is like a gourmet meal!" It was only potato corn chowder, but I'm glad she liked it.

I actually found his mom to be kind of hilarious, because it wasn't my life she was meddling with. At one point in the car, we were talking about spelunking, and his mom turned to my boyfriend and said, "Whatever you do, don't go into a cave after it rains. You will die."

If anyone's interested, some photos are here.
posted by booknerd at 9:56 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

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