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

At a time when most of her peers are retired and some are finding themselves occupying hospital beds, Carole Hunne- well, 80, works four nights a week as an intensive care nurse. She fills the rest of her time volunteering for children’s causes and animal shelters.

“My mind is sharp, and people say I have an incredible memory,” Hunnewell told me. “That’s a vegan-vegetarian diet that has done that for me.”

Hunnewell, a native of Maine, adopted a vegetarian diet in the 1960s when she was in her late 20s and living in Pennsylvania. In recent years, she moved toward a vegan diet.

“I decided one day that no animals should die so I could eat,” said Hunnewell, who lives in Brunswick. “I never ate meat again.”

Based on my interviews with more than a dozen Mainers who have been vegetarian for at least 10 years, Hunnewell’s strong will is a common trait. People who are happy to go with the flow and decide to become vegetarians often find that the flow heads right back to the hamburger joint. According to a recent survey by the Humane Research Council, 84 percent of people who adopt a vegetarian diet eventually start eating meat again. However, more than a third of these former vegetarians say they’d like to give up meat again. It seems only the tough (some might say stubborn) survive to become long-term vegetarians.

VEG MANNERS

Beyond persistence, veteran vegetarians in Maine tend to have acquired the skills needed to navigate the awkward social situations that can come with the territory.

Kevin Fahrman, 59, of Falmouth is well practiced in this realm. He has been a vegetarian for ethical reasons since 1973, when he was a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono. After reading that feeding crops to livestock produces less food for humans than feeding the same grain to people, Fahrman said, “I had an epiphany.”

A meat-based diet is “not an efficient way of feeding the world,” he said.

But he won’t tell you the same if you meet him at a dinner party and ask why he’s a vegetarian.

“You do have to bite your lip and say, ‘I don’t like all that cholesterol,’ ” Fahrman said of the delicate dance vegetarians sometimes perform to keep the tone of a gathering civil.

After close to 30 years of being a vegetarian myself, I too have learned to choose my words carefully. Telling someone seated near me at the dinner table that I eat this way for ethical reasons implies that his or her food choices are suspect. And who wants to hear that over roast chicken?

That said, the dinner party is one area where long-term vegetarian Roberta de Araujo of Portland has noticed a big change.

In the 1970s and ’80s, de Araujo and her husband, Ron Kreisman, knew they would be eating quiche whenever they were invited to a friend’s home for dinner. “That was the standard thing meat eaters would make for their vegetarian friends,” de Araujo, 58, said.

Today, with a worldwide recipe catalog a mouse click away, cooks have become much more adventurous. When she and Kreisman, both attorneys, are invited to dinner these days, they are often pleasantly surprised. At recent dinner parties, she’s enjoyed a lentil-quinoa stew with roasted vegetables and two varieties of pesto, and a tofu and green pea curry with a mango-pineapple sauce.

“It’s just very easy to be vegetarian now compared to many years ago,” de Araujo said. “Even going out to eat.”

She named Empire Kitchen and Green Elephant as two Portland restaurants that are especially vegetarian friendly. Hunnewell of Brunswick says she “eats out a lot” and points to She Doesn’t Like Guthries and The Ark, both in Lewiston, to show the geographic spread of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in southern Maine.

REALITIES AVOIDED

When I started this series, I thought my discussions with long-term vegetarians would center almost exclusively on how easy it is to be vegetarian today compared to 10 or 20 years ago. And we did talk about this change. All the long-term vegetarians I interviewed praise the wide availability of vegetarian food in restaurants and grocery stores.

My friend Marcie Oechslie of Portland, 57, vegetarian since 1981, recalls that “35 years ago I had to order a ham Italian without the ham. It was the only way to make someone understand. I do not miss those days.”

But, after speaking with so many long-term vegetarians and thinking about what they’ve told me, I realize this cultural shift is only part of the story – the one we vegetarians share with non-vegetarians. What I was surprised to find is that other long-term vegetarians still feel the sting of our meat-eating society, as I do.

Each day, vegetarians wake up and confront a culture that wants us to eat factory-farmed, government-subsidized animals while we navigate an unending series of social situations where we must explain why we don’t and won’t.

Kreisman, 59, says he’s found that being a long-term vegetarian comes with an unexpected mental burden that seems to grow heavier as the years pass.

“The hardest part … is being around people I love who say, ‘I don’t care,’ ” Kreisman said. He said it was easier to watch people eat animals years ago, before there was so much evidence about the harm caused by a meat-centric diet.

“The foodie culture here thinks progressive is satisfied by locavore,” said Kreisman, who practices environmental law and disagrees with the idea that eating locally raised animals is more ethical or better for the environment.

He added that the tastemakers involved in Maine’s local food and restaurant scene frequently ignore the environmental realities of a meat-based diet. As an example, he cited a recent Maine Sunday Telegram restaurant review that praised a tuna dish. “You wouldn’t think he’s talking about a species on the brink of extinction,” Kreisman said.

This is how many of us long-term vegetarians see the world, through a lens that makes clear the death behind every dish of meat.

Hunnewell agrees that many non-vegetarians still don’t get it, yet she sees hope in a new group of foodies in their teens and 20s. “I’m certainly running into more vegetarians than ever before,” she said. “The younger generation reads more and is more interested in what’s going on in the world, and they see what’s happening with the slaughterhouses and the factory farms.”

If Hunnewell is right, we may soon see Mainers sitting down to fewer meat-based meals. Such a change could bring relief to long-term vegetarians. There’s no question it would be a positive step for animals.

Avery Yale Kamila is a free- lance food writer in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter:AveryYaleKamila