One of the best parts about writing for the Press Herald is the feedback and questions I receive from readers. It can take me a few days, but eventually I answer all your messages and pass along any information I have.

Realizing that others in Maine might be asking similar questions, I’ve decided to share some of the recent queries (with the writers’ permission) and my responses. This is the first in what I hope will be a regular feature of this column.

All the questions (and answers) have been edited for clarity and length.

Where can I find vegan brunch?

Since the Pepperclub/The Good Egg Café closed last month, fans of its popular brunch are searching for new Sunday spots. Jo Ann Miller Goodman of Portland is one such regular. She and her husband, both vegans, often went to The Good Egg with omnivore friends. Now she is looking for a new brunch place that appeals to both the tofu scramble and the sausage-and-egg crowds.

Goodman said she was a particular fan of the long-running restaurant’s vegetarian hash (made with tempeh, potato, spinach, broccoli and carrots). “We know of Silly’s, Local Sprouts Café and Bintliff’s,” she said, naming other restaurants that serve some vegan breakfast items alongside the standard American offerings. “Hot Suppa carries soy milk but only oatmeal as an option for us.”

Answer: You’ve found the major vegan-friendly brunch spots in Portland. You could also try Artemisia Cafe, where there’s a veggie and home fries dish you can order without the eggs and cheese, and Caiola’s, which has a stand-out fruit salad and, while the menu has little that’s vegan, the kitchen is quite accommodating and has made me off-menu vegan dishes on multiple occasions. Also, Dobra Tea (which is relocating from Middle Street to 89 Exchange St. and hopes to reopen this month) has a lovely all-vegetarian menu for brunch and lunch.

Who knows, maybe this loss will have a silver lining, and we’ll see other brunch spots try to lure regulars like you and your friends by adding a vegan menu item or two?

P.S. Should you ever want the recipe for the Pepperclub/The Good Egg Café’s veggie hash, it lives on in Meg Wolff’s vegan cookbook “A Life in Balance.”

Is watermelon fertilized with honey?

Joanne Libby of Freeport bought a watermelon at the local Shaw’s. At home, she noticed its label said “Candy Brand” and “fertilized with honey.” “So now I have to start looking at the labels on watermelons, as I don’t like to have other things added to my fruits and vegetables?” she asked. While not a vegan herself, she wondered if such watermelon would be suitable for people who avoid honey, as some vegans do. “Also, honey is quite expensive and it would be a waste to use it as fertilizer. Were you aware of this new (to me anyways) way that our foods are altered?”

Answer: No, not before you wrote, but I have read about honey being used as a premium soil additive by dedicated home gardeners. After a bit of online digging, I discovered MG Ford Produce grows Candy Brand watermelons in a number of different states but is headquartered in La Belle, Florida.

That’s where I reached Luke Pixley, a company representative, who told me the watermelon wouldn’t contain any actual honey. He said the rind prevents anything applied to the outside of the plant from reaching the melon flesh.

When I asked if the watermelons were actually fertilized with honey, Pixley said he couldn’t comment.

“It’s a patented process that we have,” Pixley said. “It’s something we use to stand out.”

But Robert Morrissey, who heads the National Watermelon Association in Lakeland, Florida, is skeptical of honey as a potential fertilizer, saying “the sheer expense of it would make it prohibitive to produce a crop and pay the bills.”

After consulting with a couple watermelon growers, Morrissey told me the consensus was that such an additive wouldn’t be practical. “The irrigation tape is so small that a consistency like heavy honey would clog it up,” Morrissey said. “They add a liquid fertilizer, if anything at all, but its consistency is water-like.”

As to whether or not someone who avoids honey would want to eat one of these watermelons, I’d call it a gray area. For the rare person with a honey allergy, avoiding such watermelons may be reasonably cautious. But if vegans set out to avoid honey-fertilized foods, they will soon discover they’ve opened a can of worms, since things including manure from dairy farms and blood meal from slaughter houses are used as fertilizer.

There is, however, a system of agriculture that avoids the use of all animals and animal products. It’s known by a few different terms, including “vegan organic” and “veganic.” Few vegans have access to food grown this way because it is not practiced on a widely available commercial scale. I’d say food fertilized with honey probably wouldn’t qualify as veganic, but then a lot of the fruits and vegetables that vegans buy might not qualify, either.

Finally, Morrissey reminds me that there’s no need to add honey to watermelons or the soil they grow in because the fruits “are naturally sweet enough while being a wonderful, healthy part of our diets.”

Where can I find free-range eggs in Kennebunk?

Living in Maine, we’re pretty sheltered from factory farms, but the major exception is the former DeCoster egg business, with facilities in Turner, Leeds and Winthrop. Since 2011, the farms have been run by a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes. Because of this farm’s infamous history, I find Mainers to be generally well-informed about the state of commercial poultry husbandry. Thus I’m never surprised when another friend adds a flock of chickens to the backyard or asks this question, which came from Dave Pasquarello of Kennebunk.

Answer: Since laws governing egg labels are lax, I feel the only way to truly know how the eggs you buy have been raised is to raise them yourself, to visit the farm or to talk to someone you trust who has visited.

To that end, you might try the local farmers market (the Kennebunk Farmers Market is held Saturday mornings through the end of November) or the local health food store (New Morning Natural Foods). I recently visited a farm in the area called Frinklepod Farm in Arundel, where the chickens are moved around in a large pen during the growing season and allowed to range free in the fields after the harvest.

Deciphering egg cartons can be tricky. For instance the terms “cage-free” and “free-range” mean the birds aren’t crammed into tiny cages, but that doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors or have room to stretch their wings. “Pasture-raised” sounds good, but because it isn’t a term regulated by the U.S. government, it’s hard to say what it means. Terms such as “vegetarian-fed” and “organic” tells us about what the chickens ate. But to really know how the chickens who lay the eggs we eat are raised, we have to do a little investigating.

By the way, after I replied to Pasquarello, he got back to me to let me know he’d become a regular at the Frinklepod Farm Store and that he’d discovered “Snug Harbor Farms sells pastured eggs and they’re right down the street from me.”

That’s the great things about Maine – a little sleuthing tends to pay off in tasty local food.

What happened to the nut-based cheese entrepreneur?

Since last fall, when I wrote about a local woman’s plans to launch a business selling aged nut milk-based cheese, I’ve received half a dozen emails, including one from Kate Carney of Portland, asking what ever happened to her – Betsy Nelson is her name – and where they can buy the cheeses.

Answer: I’m afraid I don’t have good news. When I tracked down Nelson, I learned there’s been “no progress with the cheese business,” and she’s put the project on hold while she returns to school.

She said that three factors drove her decision: First, she ran out of money and she learned about “the presence of excellent cheeses very similar to my own in the marketplace” that “were not available or widely distributed at the time I initiated the project.” (Whole Foods in Portland now sells aged nut milk cheeses from California-based Kite Hill.) Finally, she discovered the standard process for aging nut-based cheeses wouldn’t meet Maine health codes. “I am sure that the nut-based cheese manufacturers out there have got this all figured out in a way that makes it inspection passable,” she told me, “but not being an engineer or biologist myself, I haven’t the knowledge” of how to meet the regulatory requirements while allowing the cheese “to be fermented with live cultures.”

This might explain why Kite Hill lists a cheese-making instructor, a former operations manager for a large cheese-making facility in France and a Stanford biochemist among its four founders (the other is celebrity vegan chef Tal Ronnen).

Still there is a tiny sliver of hope. Nelson said she is in touch with a potential funder. “Perhaps in time, this project will come to be,” she said.

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

avery[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 

 

QUESTIONS?

Do you have a question about vegetarian food or dining in Maine? Please send it to [email protected], and I’ll do my best to track down the answer.