For vegetarians and vegans, the South long has been a desert; a place where barbecued pork, fried chicken, salt-cured “Virginia ham,” ribs, sausage, country- fried steak and even “chitlins’ ” (that’s pig intestine for you Yankees) have been part of the culture that’s ingrained and celebrated.

If you go

Today: The College of Charleston’s College Reads presents vegan triathlete Rich Roll, author of “Finding Ultra,” at 4:45 p.m. in Room 129 of the college’s School of Sciences and Mathematics Building, 202 Calhoun St. (at Calhoun and Coming streets). The event is free and open to the public.

Saturday: Charleston Veggies and Vegans will hold its first Veggie/Vegan Restaurant Outing at 6:30 p.m. at Puree Organic Cafe, an all-vegetarian restaurant, at 1034 Chuck Dawley Blvd. in Mount Pleasant. The group asks for RSVPs via the events tab on the Charleston Veggies and Vegans Facebook page.

March 27: The College of Charleston presents “Gene Baur: The Impact of Factory Farming” 5:30-7:30 p.m. in Room 227 of Addlestone Library, 205 Calhoun St. downtown. Baur’s book, “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food,” was released in 2008. The event is free and open to the public.

March 28: Jivamukti Yoga Charleston will present “An Evening With Gene Baur” at 7:30-9:30 p.m. at its studio, 320 W. Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant. A donation of $10 to $20 to benefit Farm Sanctuary is suggested.

But several events have transpired in the Charleston area in the past year or so that may be an indication that the area is becoming an oasis for locals who eschew meat, dairy and eggs.

Foodie options

Several restaurants are offering more menu items, from the all-vegetarian Puree Organic Cafe in Mount Pleasant and the future Dell’z Uptown cafe at 511 Rutledge Ave. to vegan-friendly restaurants such as Doe’s Pita in North Charleston, Dell’z Deli, Verde and Black Bean Co. in Charleston, the latter two of which are adding locations.

The Sprout, which is primarily a vegan smoothies and juice bar, also offers vegan food items. And its owners, Mickey and Caroline Brennan, are advocates for the lifestyle.

In January, the College of Charleston announced plans to open a dining hall featuring vegan and kosher food, made possible by a $1 million pledge, in the school’s Jewish Studies Center.

The hall will be named for Jewish Studies Director Martin Perlmutter, who has a passion for “ethical eating” and the philosophical question raised by food consumption.

A campus focus

This school year, the topic of veganism and vegetarianism has been front and center at C of C as its “The College Reads” program has featured an array of speakers, panel discussions and films.

Last fall, nearly 900 people came out to hear a talk by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “Eating Animals,” at TD Arena.

Today, vegan triathlete Rich Roll, author of “Finding Ultra,” will talk. Next week, Farm Sanctuary’s co-founder Gene Baur gives three talks, including two open ones at the college and Jivamukti Yoga Charleston in Mount Pleasant.

Films that the college has screened, including “Forks Over Knives” and “Earthlings,” are among a half-dozen that have raised awareness nationally about the myriad problems caused by factory farming: from obesity, heart disease, cancer and taxpayer-funded subsidies to environmental degradation and animal cruelty.

Additionally, the Internet and social media are enriching the ground for the growth of vegetarianism in Charleston. Groups such as Charleston Veggies and Vegans on Facebook and animal welfare action group Carolina Community Animal Reform Education are bringing like-minded people together.

Yoga influence

Longtime local vegan advocates such as Andrea Boyd and Jeffrey Cohen of Jivamukti Yoga Charleston are taking note, though with mixed feelings about the progress.

“When we moved here (in 2005), we wondered if we were the only vegans in town,” says Boyd, who often talks about the importance of a vegan diet in yoga classes.

“It’s really ingrained in the culture, so there has been a lot of resistance to the message, but there always will be the hope that everyone starts to see the benefits of how it can change health in this country”

She’s disheartened that even among yoga practitioners nationally only 12 percent claim to be vegetarian and that many local yoga studios don’t advocate it.

Cohen says many people still view being a vegetarian or vegan as radical or extreme.

“But what’s more radical? A vegan diet or a triple-bypass surgery? All the things that plague us in our culture and the environment today have a direct correlation to diet. We just live in the age that the main root cause of suffering has to do with what’s on our plate. And if people change that, their lives will transform.”

While Boyd and Cohen have made veganism “business as usual” since the beginning, they have been joined by a growing number of fellow advocates in recent years.

A chef’s view

Among them is chef and former meat lover Ken Immer

“Vegetarian food in Charleston has come a long way since I was first on the restaurant scene here in Charleston back in 1993,” says Immer, founder and chief operating officer of gRAWnola. He is a vegetarian who often eats vegan and holds vegan juice fasts and vegan cooking classes.

“Back in the old days at SNOB (Slightly North of Broad), it was difficult to actually find vegetables that did not have some animal proteins or fats in them with our copious use of butter and cream.”

Immer says SNOB’s Frank Lee, however, later set the stage for nearly every restaurant offering a truly vegetarian plate that is often vegan. The rise of local farmers markets, CSAs and locally sourced restaurant food also has improved options for vegetarians.

“Now we see the emergence and success of restaurants like Dell’z, The Sprout, Verde, among others, with a decidedly vegetarian angle, and Five Loaves Cafe and The Mustard Seed with their numerous veggie choices on their daily menu. It has become relatively easy for someone who is a lacto-ovo vegetarian to get some good grub in town.”

Fork activism

Animal rights advocate Elaine Hursen was drawn to the opportunities that Charleston’s culinary community offered for change.

“Because Charleston is a culinary town, people are open to anything creative and new when it comes to food, “ says Hursen, adding that vegan food is a rising trend in foodie circles.

The 32-year-old James Island resident is among a core group of about eight people who have been organizing events as part of Carolina CARE, has organized two Walk for Animals events and is planning one for sometime this spring.

Old ways die

While all acknowledge that eating meat is entrenched in the South, they point to other unethical, unhealthy traditions and customs that have been torn down.

College of Charleston math professor and vegan Martin Jones, who has tirelessly worked on the College Reads programming this year, points to slavery and cigarette smoking as examples of daunting scale that have met their demise.

“I remember going on the plane for the first time and there was a smoking row. It didn’t matter that the smoke circulated throughout the plane. Back then, people had no idea that we’d see a day that you can’t smoke in a plane ... or a restaurant. Who thought?

“... I think the same thing will happen when the critical mass will get there (not eat meat) and that there will be so many options and that it would be so easy to be vegan. ... When you get down to the fact that we can live a life without eating meat and that we raise these animals, from birth to death, in horrific conditions. What could be more unnecessary than my taste buds?”

Market success

And yet, many vegetarian and vegan proponents say people don’t have to sacrifice taste.

Puree Organic Cafe restaurant owners Jenan and Bryant McClain are proving that, within a year of opening, they can pack the restaurant at lunch in a relatively obscure location on Chuck Dawley Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.

“We’re doing really well and just started serving dinner,” she says. “We’re doing even better than we expected. ... We’d love to open a second location at some point down the road.”

When the McClains moved here, they were surprised that Charleston had no restaurant that served 100 percent vegetarian food, particularly given its array of dining options and its dynamic fitness and yoga communities.

The Greenville native adds, however, that she’s unsure how well a restaurant such as Puree would do in other Southern communities, such as the Upstate.

What Puree and other mostly vegetarian dining options do is to educate the public on the alternatives to eating meat that are not only healthy but delicious, she says.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand