After a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic, the Maine Animal Coalition’s long-running VegFest returns to Portland on Saturday, Oct. 29. Highlights of the festival, at the East End Community School, include vegan food trucks, plant-based vendors and four featured speakers.

Clare Beverage, who works at mushroom supply company North Spore in Westbrook, is among the speakers. She’ll deliver a talk on “The Magnificent Mushroom: An Introduction to the Nutrition, Preparation and Home Cultivation of Mushrooms.”

“You don’t need expensive lights or equipment or anything,” Beverage said when I asked about growing mushrooms at home. “I’ve been growing blue oysters, pink oysters and lion’s mane inside and wine cap mushrooms outside. Reishi mushrooms are super beautiful to grow inside.”

Many of these mushrooms can be grown from kits, or home growers can inoculate their own logs or mix of compost and sawdust with mushroom spores. Beverage is quick to say she is new to mushrooms, having developed an interest in them during 2020, yet she has already gained hands-on experience at home in Portland and in the laboratory at North Spore, where she cultivates mycelium in a multi-step, sterile process.

VegFest speaker and mushroom expert Clare Beverage. Photo courtesy of VegFest

“For vegans and vegetarians, mushrooms offer a whole different texture and flavor that’s exciting to explore,” Beverage said.

“One thing I hope to talk about at the festival is lion’s mane,” she said. “It has a crab-y, seafood-mimicking texture. It sort of peels apart like string cheese. My boss gave me a recipe I want to try for lion’s mane crab cakes made with flax eggs and Old Bay spices.”

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Since the cell walls of mushrooms contain chitin, which is indigestible raw, Beverage, advises people to cook mushrooms rather than slicing them into a salad. “You’re not able to access the nutrients unless you cook these,” she said. Her favorite way to enjoy mushrooms is as a rich, umami broth. She soaks dehydrated shiitakes with kombu seaweed and then simmers it down into stock.

“It’s good in the fridge for a couple days,” Beverage said. In the mornings, she’ll heat some of the stock, then stir in a couple spoonfuls of miso off-heat, and enjoy hot miso soup for breakfast.

Plant-based diet expert Dr. Candice McElroy will also speak at VegFest. Photo courtesy of VegFest

The connection between taxpayer subsidies, poor nutrition and healthcare costs has been in the news lately, and Dr. Candice McElroy, a family practice physician, will address some of these in her talk. She plans to explore the connection between diet and chronic disease and discuss approachable ways to eat better and move toward a plant-based diet.

“The conventional medical practice makes it really hard to have these conversations,” said McElroy, who has followed a vegan diet for more than 25 years. “There’s no time to talk about the pros and cons of (prescription) statins versus a plant-based diet. It’s easier to just prescribe the medicine.”

McElroy opened her own practice, Cold River Health in Lovell, earlier this year in order to make time for such conversations. She offers traditional services while also encouraging patients to use plant-based foods to help reverse chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Vegan endurance athlete and Guinness World Record holder Brendan Walsh of Portland will deliver a talk on “Breaking Stigmas & Records on a Vegan Diet.” Walsh recently ran the 312 miles from Lubec to Kittery in 10 days to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

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“My focus will be on the story of how I became vegan, why and how what I do for a good cause is a privilege, and animals don’t get that privilege,” Walsh said.

Endurance athlete Brendan Walsh says his vegan diet improves his performance.  Photo courtesy of VegFest

He plans to discuss how his vegan diet facilitates his endurance athletic feats, allowing for “instant regeneration of muscle tissue and zero recovery time,” he said. “It leaves you with a clear mind and the ability to problem solve.”

He also will talk about how “eating meat is not manly. Being manly is about living true to your ethics and looking out for people who are not in as privileged a situation as you are, whether that’s a pig or a crab or your elderly neighbor.”

After reading my history columns in this newspaper, the event organizers invited me to deliver the first talk of the day. I’ll discuss “300 Years of Maine Vegetarian History,” focusing on my ongoing project to recover this lost past and highlight some of the fascinating people and events I’ve uncovered. For the first time, I’ll share details about a vegetarian who arrived in what is now Maine in 1694, making him the earliest Maine vegetarian (vegan, really) I’ve yet discovered. Bonus: if you come to hear me, you’ll get a collection of my vegetarian history columns, their publication generously funded by VegFund. And should you want to chat with me about history or food, I’ll also have a table at the event.

“I hope that anyone with an interest in a plant-based diet out of concern for animals, the environment or their health will come to our free festival,” said organizer Beth Gallie, who is president of the Maine Animal Coalition.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
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