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Giant turkey tells St. Paul to try vegan Thanksgiving

John Coughlin's turkey wants his neighbors to try vegan Thanksgiving.

John Coughlin's turkey wants his neighbors to try vegan Thanksgiving.

John Coughlin was 7 or 8 the last time he deliberately ate an animal.

He got a hamburger at a restaurant. It wasn't memorable.

His most recent meat eating experiences were bad ones. A couple times at restaurants, he's ordered a veggie or mushroom-based burger, only to find they mistakenly served him cooked cow.

Coughlin can't do it. He sends it back.

Coughlin was raised vegetarian in St. Paul. One day when Coughlin was 5, his parents informed him and his siblings that they intended to stop preparing meat dishes at home. The kids were welcome to pursue it outside the home, but they wouldn't find it on their dinner plates anymore. 

He doesn't miss it. None of them do. 

"My palate's definitely changed," Coughlin says. "It doesn’t appeal to me in the least, and I haven’t been drawn to it."

A childhood eating fruits, vegetables, and grains didn't exactly leave him a shriveled wimp. Coughlin grew into a 6-foot-4 athlete, a soccer star at St. Paul Academy and in college. He later played 11 seasons with the (now-defunct) Minnesota Thunder soccer team as a defender. 

"When I was in the under-12, under-14 timeframe, I think kids like to pick on each other more," Coughlin says of his soccer days. "I was teased quite a bit about it. Kids will be kids. By the time I was in high school and beyond, I was fairly comfortable with it, and it was part of me. I wasn’t ashamed about it, and could easily stand up to any questions, and jokes."

Now the jokes are Coughlin's to make.

This week he put out a giant inflatable turkey on the porch of his St. Paul house. "GOBBLE VEGGIES, NOT TURKEYS," reads the bird's chest. "GO VEG!" The inflatable is produced by the PETA animal rights group.

For the past 15 years, Coughlin, now a mechanical engineer, and his immediate family have been eating vegan, following the lead of a brother who had dropped any animal-based foods (or drinks). This doesn't complicate things at a Thanksgiving dinner table -- except for the seating chart. If they're joining a big group on his dad's side in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Coughlin's cadre will group in one area so their vegan dishes are within arm's reach.

Likewise if they go to his wife's side, where her mom will make a turkey and a mock turkey option. There are "a lot of plant-based roasts out there that are really, really good," says Coughlin, citing Tofurky and Gardein as successful at crafting a non-bird. Inevitably, some curious sort will want to try the roast he and his family are munching on, and usually they report that it's good, but tastes different from turkey.

The critique suits Coughlin fine.

"You want people to try your food, to show [vegan] can taste just as good," he says. "You also don’t want them to eat all your food, either."

Coughlin's biggest reason for swearing off meat all these years is the cruelty America's factory farming imposes on its animals. 

"I think the agriculture industry has done a good job hiding it," he says."Turkeys, cows, pigs, these are animals, just like a dog and cat. They can feel pain, and it's pretty easy to see that. Just because it’s hidden from us doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen."

Coughlin's big bird has been on his porch for only a couple days. He's not sure if he's won anyone over, but the turkey will keep watch all next week.