Q: As we do every year, my husband and I are hosting an epic backyard barbecue over Memorial Day weekend. This year, there’s one not-so-slight hitch: My younger sister Alexis, a recent vegan, and her new beau, a longtime vegan from what I understand, will be attending for the first time, making them somewhat of an anomaly amidst about 10 other very carnivorous couples (we live in Kansas City for crying out loud). I obviously want my dear sister and her new man to be happy, comfortable and well-fed but hosting a barbecue, vegan style, is completely new to me. Have any pointers on how I can pull this off without alienating anyone?


Antoinette, Kansas City, Mo.


Hey Antoinette,

So you want to throw a vegan barbecue bash (hello oxymoron!) and not alienate anyone in Kansas City of all places? My advice: Don’t have one.

What I mean to say is, just have the barbecue like you usually do — ribs, burgers, steaks, hot dogs, chicken and all the animal flesh your guests can handle — but serve up a few vegan-friendly options for your sister and her new man friend. No need to have an exclusively vegan barbecue because from the sounds of it, if you do you may have a riot on your hands. Whatever you do, don’t overanalyze and fret about it. It’s your sister and her boyfriend coming over, not Alicia Silverstone and Moby.

If you stick with the same menu every year, I’d start by thinking about a couple of classic items that can be easily vegan-ized. You’d be surprised by how many side dish staples can be made vegan-friendly with a couple of minor tweaks here and there. Take pasta salad, for example. Just prepare it like you normally would but swap out the mayo for homemade, egg-free vegenaise … easy as that. Do you usually do three varieties of meat shish kabobs? Throw in a veggie one with tofu chunks and a special marinade this year.

Of course, Alexis and her beau will most likely want to nibble on a bit more than just vegan macaroni salad and veggie shish kabobs. Instead of going out of your way to buy a bunch of seitan sausages, tempeh burgers, soy riblets and other “fake meats,” just ask her if there’s a couple of items that she and the BF are particularly fond of. Just because she’s vegan doesn’t mean she’ll eat anything labeled as such.

In addition to any special requests, surprise your sis with something special … a vegan take on one of her favorite childhood dishes, perhaps. I’d check out VegNews magazine or the Post Punk Kitchen for fresh, innovative and animal-product-free recipes. Sustainablog also offers some great barbecue-specific menu ideas, while Your Daily Vegan has a killer homemade BBQ sauce recipe. And, of course, MNN has some vegetarian and vegan grilling recipes worth looking into (I’d kill for those chili-lime sweet potatoes).

Since your barbecue is going down in a meat-crazy town and will be attended by mostly meat-craving guests, it’s just as important to mind basic social etiquette as it is to accommodate the specific dietary need of Alexis and her boyfriend. Not that you need coaching on any of this, but remember to keep in mind that your sister’s diet isn’t unusual. These days, veganism isn’t exactly marginalized, so don’t treat it as if it is even though it’s a new concept at your barbecue. Don’t go out of your way to fuss over or draw attention to your sister. It’s unnecessary and inappropriate.

A couple things not to loudly exclaim: “Are you enjoying that TOFU-BASED VEGAN HOT DOG, Alexis?” or “Do you like the macaroni salad, Barb? It’s a new recipe that I tried out for my VEGAN SISTER.” If Alexis or her boyfriend want other guests at the barbecue to know that they are not on team meat, then they’ll do so themselves. Again, it may seem like a novel concept to you and your guests, but it’s not really a big deal.

I once found myself in a completely reversed situation at a group dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant where I was the only meat-eater (a very picky one at that and a former pescetarian) at a table of eight vegetarians and vegans. When a bowl of popcorn tossed in bacon butter arrived at the table no one batted an eyelash or made a gagging noise when I claimed the bowl to myself and devoured the entire thing. I didn’t feel awkward nor did anyone else at the table. When it comes down to it, it’s just food. The company is the important part.

Other than making sure to not alienate your sister and her new man, I’d make sure to have the grill master attend to any vegan grill-ables before cooking any meat treats on a well-cleaned grill. Or you can prepare both at the same time, separating the vegan offerings from everything else on a big piece of aluminum foil. For chopped veggies, use a grilling basket. And if you’re doing dessert, don’t knock yourself out preparing a heaping tray of vegan baked goods unless you want to. A fresh fruit salad or some dairy-free sorbet should do just fine. And don’t forget the grilled pineapple.

Hope this helps, Antoinette. Let me know about any vegan recipes that go over well with your sister, her BF and perhaps some of the other guests. Who knows — maybe the vegan edibles at this year’s BBQ will be just as big a hit as your normal, meaty offerings. And if you haven’t started using biodegradable and reusable serveware already, please do so to minimize the impact that your backyard bash has on landfills. Happy grillin’.

-- Matt

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Photos: Jupiterimages, redfox/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.