When Bangor resident Mary Lake decided to become a vegetarian in high school, it was more because she empathized with the plight of animals, and less because she didn’t want to consume unhealthful processed foods.
“Originally, it was for the animal welfare issue. I had all the animal liberation T-shirts. It wasn’t really about personal health. The blue Slush Puppies were vegetarian, so that was fine,” said Lake, who works as a reading teacher for the Asa C. Adams Elementary School in Orono.
Being vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean eating a healthful diet — some vegetarians subsist on cookies and pasta, just so long as it’s meat-free. So, after college, when Lake decided to cut all animal products out of her diet and go vegan, the reasons behind that decision had changed.
“Later, it really became more about eating whole food, and knowing what I was putting into my body,” said Lake. “I wanted to base my diet on plants.”
Now 28, Lake has stuck for several years to a diet that is free of animal products. She and her husband, Rodney, moved to Bangor from southern Maine last summer, and immediately Lake began exploring her options for eating out and for buying food in the area.
In December 2008, sensing there were lots of other vegetarians and vegans in eastern Maine, she started her blog, Mitten Machen, www.mittenmachen.com, a resource for vegan recipes, shopping and dining options, and living the herbivore’s life in Bangor.
“I’d been getting a lot of curiosity from people who knew I was vegan and wanted to know where I went to eat around here, and what kind of things I cooked,” explained Lake. “I knew a lot of people who didn’t want to go completely vegan, but wanted to cut down on their meat and processed food. And there’s such an active vegetarian and vegan scene in Portland, I wanted to see if I could get some enthusiasm up this way.”
Lake, an active browser of the Internet, read the blog for the magazine Maine Food & Lifestyle — blog.mainefoodandlifestyle.com — and eventually sent MF&L editor Merrill Williams the link to Mitten Machen to add to a list of Maine food blogs. Williams liked Lake’s work so much she asked her to contribute vegetarian-centric posts to the MF&L blog, and eventually to write a column for the magazine, the first of which appears in this month’s edition.
“Mary is a teacher, and she’s got that marvelous teacher’s ability to take a subject and present it in a way that even a beginner cook can follow. That’s a very special talent,” said Williams. “She’s also an awfully good photographer.”
As the editor of a food magazine, Williams is aware of trends and attitudes in the way we eat. She has noticed a marked uptick in the number of vegetarians and vegans in Maine and nationwide over the past few years.
“Vegetarians are a population that are much more mainstream now than they were even just 10 years ago. There’s certainly a new appreciation for meatless cooking and eating,” said Williams. “And there’s a good awareness across the board about eating more healthfully. Many people are more careful about what they put in their mouths.”
While she’s always got an eye on being healthy, a typical dinner in the Lake household is anything but bland tofu, beans and kale. Lake’s tastes tend to run toward spicy, exotic flavors, both in the meals she makes for dinner and the treats she makes for dessert — check out the adorable, unusual Mexican Hot Chocolate cupcakes featured on Mitten Machen.
“I make lots of curries. I make a slew of stews and soups, and things that are Asian- and Indian-inspired,” said Lake. “I like things with bold flavors.”
Some of her favorite vegan-friendly local restaurants include Bahaar Pakistani and Taste of India, both on Main Street, and Chopsticks on Center Street, the latter of which she says makes “the best fried tofu ever.” Lake also reads the Bangor Vegetarian Network, run by Tom Wilton of the Natural Living Center in Bangor, which has a presence on both MySpace and Facebook and offers a compendium of local vegetarian restaurants and shopping options.
Mary and Rodney joined Parker’s Produce, a Newport-based Community Supported Agriculture farm that delivers fresh, local vegetables each week to a pickup spot in Bangor. They’re also avid shoppers at the Orono Farmers Market held each Saturday at the Steam Plant Parking Lot on College Avenue.
“If you’re eating plants, you’re one step closer to photosynthesis. Your calories aren’t filtered through some other organism,” she said. “I just think with all the obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes in the U.S., it’s indisputable that we should all be eating more plants. Being vegan keeps me from eating a lot of processed junk food that I’m tempted by but really don’t need.”
Were she to take her food writing to the next level, Lake would consider writing a book about cooking meat-free for kids and families. For now, though, she’s content to make delicious vegan scones, noodle dishes and hearty stews for herself, her husband, and her two Shetland sheepdogs, Graeme and Ellie — none of whom are vegan themselves.
“Rodney isn’t vegetarian, but he doesn’t cook, so he eats what I make,” said Lake. “Luckily, he likes everything. And the dogs aren’t vegetarian. I’m not going to go that far.”