The 5th annual Maine Vegetarian Food Festival took place last Saturday at Portland's East End Community School. Hosted by the Maine Animal Coalition, this free event featured workshops on vegan cooking and raw diets, exhibitions by organic farming, fitness, and animal advocacy groups, and plenty of free samples.
In the last few months, Portland's growing appetite for vegan cuisine has made way for a raw vegan restaurant and two dairy-free bakeries. Representatives from the recently-opened GRO Cafe were mobbed by people scarfing down their handmade coconut-filled and chili-laced raw chocolates. Further down the rows of tables, I tried some cornbread and a brownie made by K's Vegan Treats, a bakery offering whole grain, sugar-free quickbreads, brownies, cookies, and cakes that will open later this summer in the Public Market House.
At the display of 13th Cookie, a bakery specializing in gluten-free, naturally-sweetened vegan confections, I tried a melt-in-your-mouth peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. 13th Cookie will open soon on Exchange Street, in the old Little Lad's basement location.
Green Elephant was present with samples of Southeast Asian appetizers. Silly's scooped up saucy barbequed tofu, and Pepperclub handed out samples of their airy cardamom cake and rich dark chocolate mousse. I tasted Cheezly, newly available in the US. I'm content to skip vegan cheeses altogether, but I was impressed by the authentic sharp cheddar flavor and the simplicity of the ingredients.
Over in the cafeteria, crowds were thick around a table of packaged snackfood samples. There seemed to be no plan directing the flow of foot traffic through the room; people approached the table from all sides to gather Lärabars, Veggie Booty, granola, and Primal Stick jerky. I tried to be polite and wait my turn, but caught in the melee of frenzied vegans, I nearly lost my temper and threw some elbows. Next year, a "start here" sign and a longer table might help.
Fearing we'd turn violent amid the agave-fueled crush, we left to have lunch at the calm, sleek Green Elephant. I don't need to review this restaurant: Green Elephant is the very embodiment of four chickpeas. I ordered steamed vegetables with peanut sauce, a healthy plate of broccoli, zucchini, sweet corn, snow peas, carrots, and green beans with a side of sweet marinated tempeh. Simple, but one of my favorites.
My husband's hot and sour noodle soup with rice noodles, bean sprouts, tofu, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, and fried wontons was even more photogenic:
The vegan scene is clearly alive and growing in Southern Maine, but seems stalled in northern and eastern parts of the state, where the economy and traditions are tied to animal agriculture and fishing. Central and downeast Maine made a modest showing at the food festival, with Kelp Krunch bars by Franklin's Maine Coast Sea Vegetables available, and Ahimsa Custom Cakes, an Auburn-based vegan bakery, displaying gorgeous photos and samples. I'm excited that Portland is embracing wholesome, compassionate eating, and over time I hope the trend spreads north. At next year's event, I'd love to see more vegan-friendly businesses from the rest of Maine get some love.