EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a seven-part series on what it’s like to be a vegetarian in Maine today.

From his Falmouth office, orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Herzog sees interest in vegetarianism in Maine “going exponentially up.”

Herzog, 59, is among a small but growing breed of Maine physician who counsel patients on the many health benefits of a plant-based diet. Ten years ago he began advising all his patients to try a vegan diet, after he did the same and liked the results.

Initially, he found about 10 percent of his patients took his advice (at least for a time). A decade later, the number of patients willing to give vegan food a try to help reduce inflammation and speed recovery has doubled.

Some of this increase is a result of Herzog’s growing reputation as a doctor who doesn’t push prescription drugs, which brings him patients open to alternative treatments. And part of the increase stems from America’s expanding appetite for plant-based foods.

To cite just one example, market research firm Mintel reports sales of plant-based milks such as almond and soy grew 30 percent from 2011 to 2013.

Herzog has watched his colleagues in Maine and around the country open up to vegetarianism during the past decade, too.

“Now I have doctors calling me on a weekly basis asking me how they can be more involved in diet and health,” Herzog said.

Likewise, the nine-year-old Maine Vegan Meetup reflects the rising demand among Mainers for vegetarian food. The social club organizes restaurant outings and potlucks in Portland and across Maine.

“Membership is the biggest it’s ever been,” said personal chef Chris McClay, who serves as the group’s coordinator.

The group began with 28 members in 2007 and now has close to 700. Last year alone, membership grew 20 percent.

WRITING A NEW PAGE

It hasn’t always been this way.

Cookbook author and artist Jean Ann Pollard is happily surprised by the enthusiasm for vegetarianism both in Maine and nationally.

“I had no idea when I published the cookbook that vegetarianism would become popular,” said Pollard, whose now classic (mostly vegetarian) book, “The New Maine Cooking,” hit bookstores in 1987.

Today Pollard is a stalwart figure of the local foods movement, an artist and a longtime vegetarian. By the late 1980s, she and her husband had been vegetarians for 15 years.

However, when she presented the book’s initial editor with her vegetarian manuscript, he said it needed meat-based dishes in order to sell.

“I felt I was working against the current,” said Pollard, 80, who agreed to add non-vegetarian recipes from her Maine mother and grandmother to the book.

Thus Grandma’s quick-fried smelts, Fourth of July Maine poached salmon and shrimp with peppers and tofu joined Pollard’s vegetarian recipes. Her plant-based dishes chronicle her world travels (eggplant biryani, Japanese tempura) and reflect her Maine roots (Saturday night baked beans, Jean Ann’s strawberry shortcake).

Today the cookbook’s vegetarian recipes remain on trend, with dishes such as white bean burgers, falafel, chili con tempeh, curried kale, Cuban black beans and tofu crepes that would feel at home on many a Portland menu. The seasonally arranged book also offers extensive recipes for wild foraged plants such as dandelion fritters, sorrel soup and milkweed salad with yogurt dressing.

It remains so relevant, in fact, that Maine Authors Publishing re-issued the cookbook in 2012.

“I’m delighted to see vegetarian cookbooks increasing and making a splash now,” Pollard said recently from her Winslow home.

EATING VEGAN-iSH

While vegetarians seem more numerous today than ever and vegetarian food is more widely available, the actual numbers remain small, between 4 and 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to recent surveys. Here in Maine, this works out to be about 66,000 people. But a major reason vegetarianism – and particularly veganism – is so much more visible is the sizable block of people who aren’t vegetarian but regularly seek out vegetarian meals. National surveys show these part-time vegetarians (also known as flexitarians, semi-vegetarians and low-meat eaters) make up 30 to 40 percent of the population, or 400,000 to 500,000 people in Maine.

McClay, who has been a vegetarian for 22 years, has seen this trend firsthand.

In 2013, she launched the Westbrook-based Modern Vegan meal delivery service. Orders grew from 15 meals a week to 250 meals a week in a matter of months. Ultimately, her business failed. (She blames it on the high cost of preparing vegan food – no matter how popular her service, she says she couldn’t charge enough to cover her costs.) Before then, though, she noticed that her mostly female, mostly 50-plus customers ate vegan food as a way to maintain or improve their health. She also discovered that the real market for vegan food is not vegans, but rather omnivores who want to be vegan-ish. The experience taught her that there’s no hard and fast line between meat-eaters and vegetarians.

“I don’t think in terms of who is vegetarian or vegan,” McClay said. “It’s not that black and white in my world.”

Christine Chou in Orono would agree. For the past 30 years she’s been the chef and owner of China Garden restaurant. During the last 26, she’s been a vegetarian.

Over the decades she says she has seen the food Mainers gravitate toward, along with all the vegetables that get left behind on their plates. “Maine people like to eat meat,” Chou, 62, has observed. “They really like sweet food. They like fried food a lot.”

Many people, including vegetarians, “don’t know how to deal with green vegetables,” she added.

So she’s taken matters into her own hands, offering to design for her customers “a delicious meal…that’s more authentic and not on the menu.” She says a majority of customers – particularly regulars – agree to her impromptu chef’s tasting menu.

“I sneak in a lot of vegetarian dishes,” she said. “They say, ‘I didn’t know vegetarian dishes can be this delicious.’ I’ve been doing this with great success for the past five years.”

Like Dr. Herzog, Chou has seen her own industry open up to vegetarianism. She notes that many restaurants offer vegetarian entrées today.

Herzog takes it a step further, saying the Greater Portland area ranks in the top 20 percent of vegetarian-friendly destinations around the country.

“There are about 25 vegan-friendly restaurants,” Herzog said. “There are a lot of macrobiotic things going on. There’s more concern about health in general among the people here.”

VEGETARIANISM’S SECOND WAVE

Even so, Chou cautions that restaurant staff sometimes still misunderstand what constitutes vegetarian food. Out for breakfast recently, she ordered home fries after the waitress assured her the dish was vegetarian. A few bites (and a stomachache later), she realized the potatoes had been cooked with bacon grease.

Cookbook author Pollard also wonders how well many restaurant professionals understand vegetarian food.

“I’ve noticed if you go into a restaurant and there’s a vegetarian item on the menu, it’s often boring,” said Pollard.

Recalling her own transition to vegetarian cooking, Pollard said chefs accustomed to cooking with meat have to learn new techniques to make tasty, interesting dishes with legumes, grains and vegetables.

But Pollard doesn’t think Portland’s trendy restaurants will lead Maine toward a plant-based style of eating, anyhow. She finds hope for a more herbivorous Maine on the vegetable farms of young back-to-the-landers.

“There are so many young families trying to give it a go again,” Pollard said. “The second wave is really moving in now. And again there’s a great push for healthy eating, and I think vegetarianism will be a big part of it.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila