March 10, 2010

Veteran plant-eater happily endorses veggie chic

— My mother blames my eating habits on my organic-farm-girl childhood and, in particular, a pet pig who made an appearance on the dinner table as a pork chop. Others cite my short stint as a Burger King cashier. Personally, I trace my dietary preferences to a speech about animal testing and cosmetics I delivered during my sophomore year of high school.

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Gordon Chibroski

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: These days, I do my best to keep animal products off my plate.

Back in the late '80s, when I took the plunge into vegetarianism, I instantly became a dinner party novelty, a lunchroom spectacle, a natural foodie freak. Who knew meals could be so controversial? I quickly learned that the idea of deliberately avoiding meat generated much skepticism and a constant stream of questions about where I would get my protein, iron and flavor.

But then things began to change.

As the '90s gave way to the new millennium, vegetarianism became chic. Suddenly, everyone knew someone who was an herbivore, and the most talented chefs added sophisticated plant-based entrees to their menus. Chain restaurants followed suit. Soy milk became a staple at coffeehouses and big-box supermarkets, and the word ''vegan'' entered the everyday lexicon.

Today, being a plant-eater has never been easier or more delicious, especially here in Portland.

The city, known around the world as a foodie mecca, is home to a burgeoning natural food scene. For years, vegetarian dining in Portland pretty much began and ended with the still-popular Pepperclub. But in recent years, Portland restaurants offering at least one vegetarian entree have grown to outnumber the eateries that offer nothing but meat-and-potatoes meals.

Notable additions to Portland's vegetarian dining scene are: North Star Music Cafe (which opened in the spring of 2007 and offers extensive vegan eats); Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro (which became the city's first all-vegetarian lunch and dinner spot when it opened in the fall of 2007); Local Sprouts Cooperative Catering (which opened in the spring of 2008 and has since established itself as both vegetarian-friendly and the go-to caterer for meals made from local food); and GRO Cafe (which opened earlier this year, giving Portland its first raw vegan restaurant).

To take advantage of all the vegetarian food to be enjoyed at local restaurants, Sarah Conroy founded the Maine Vegan Meetup in 2007. It has since grown to include 167 members. Each month, the group gets together at a Maine restaurant to nosh on cruelty-free grub and swap tofu tales.

During the past five years, both vegetarians and health-conscious omnivores have flocked to the annual Maine Vegetarian Food Festival. The most recent event, held last month, was mobbed by record crowds.

Maine's health food groupies also have benefited from the state's cutting-edge role in the organic food movement. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association became the first statewide organization of its kind when it was founded in 1971. Since then, it has helped push ethical eating into the mainstream.

These days, my previously controversial stance as a humble plant eater is bolstered by a steady drumbeat of medical research linking the herbivore lifestyle to lower rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer. As a result, no one asks me about potential nutritional deficiencies anymore. Instead, I field queries about recipes, restaurant recommendations and relief from the quandary of what to do with tempeh.

Which brings me to the purpose of this weekly column. Here I'll chronicle the latest trends in natural food, plus introduce you to the people and products feeding Maine's healthful eaters. You can look forward to reading about a wide rage of eating styles, such as local, organic, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, raw and macrobiotic.

Please send me your thoughts and story suggestions and, until next week, don't forget to eat your vegetables.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

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