Howard Lyman recently had a dream about food. In the dream, he was facing two things: the barrel of a gun and a hamburger. The assailant said to him, “Eat this, or I’ll shoot.” Lyman laughs at the absurdity of the predicament. “Well, shit,” he says. “No choice there. Give it to me.” Lyman takes an imaginary burger and brings it to his mouth. “I was going to take a bite of it. And I looked at it and said, ‘Shoot me.’ Goddamn, I woke up in the coldest sweat you ever saw.”
Lyman experiences beef-born turmoil every day, often all day, and usually not just in his subconscious. Lyman’s a vegan, although he hardly fits the gentle-hippie stereotype. He’s lived in the D.C. area for more than 12 years, but he’s a Montana native, a skilled poker player (cards paid for college), and a massive cowboy—roughly 240 pounds, with powerful hands twice the size of mine. Yet compared with his former self, he’s a ballerina. In the ’70s, back when he was still a fourth-generation Montana farmer presiding over a $5 million per year agribusiness comprising 10,000 acres, 7,000 head of cattle, 20 tractors, seven combines, and 30 employees, Lyman could cast a shadow over some of his chemically bloated steers.
“I could really put it away,” he says, referring to the cow products that used to be his livelihood. But he no longer touches beef, believing that it’s far more dangerous to humans than cigarettes.
Lyman’s transformation from cowboy rancher to vegan evangelist seems form-fit for Oprah. Indeed, his tale climaxed after his appearance on her show in April 1996.
The story started 20 years ago in a Montana hospital. Lyman had a tumor on his spinal cord, and his doctors told him he had a one-in-a-million chance of walking again. The source of the tumor was no mystery: As a farmer, Lyman sprayed his crops with an herbicide known in Vietnam as Agent Orange, which contains dioxin, a highly toxic hydrocarbon. He was even less gentle with his cattle. He all but marinated his cows in harsh potions, lacing their feed with antibiotics—many of which would eventually be banned after being found dangerous to humans—and brushing their coats with even more, the latter in an attempt to ward off disease-carrying flies that swarmed around manure. There were times, he says, when he’d walk into his house with his clothes nearly saturated with chemicals, and the potted plants would die.
Lyman made himself some promises on the day he walked out of the hospital of his own accord. His beating those odds, he says, wasn’t the result of the surgeon’s skill. Rather, “I believe there’s got to be divine intervention in our lives,” he says. “I think that what I do today is part of the greater plan.”
After making a strong but ultimately unsuccessful bid for Congress and, after that, seeing his farm foreclosed on, Lyman landed in D.C. as a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union. His veganism became increasingly central to his life and worldview, and he spent hours researching the myriad ways in which modern farming endangers both humans and the environment.
In the process, Lyman became an early expert on the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad-cow” disease, plaguing Britain. In that now- infamous installment of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the former cattle rancher told an audience of millions, “A hundred thousand cows per year in the United States are fine one night, then [found] dead the following morning. The majority of those cows are…ground up and fed back to the other cows. If only one of them has mad-cow disease, it has the potential to affect thousands.”
Lyman’s statements caused a group of Texas cattlemen to sue him, along with Oprah and her production company. The resulting trial—which the defendants won, although the decision is under appeal—turned Lyman into a minor celebrity. In 1998, he released his story in a book, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth From the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat. More than a mere recounting of the Oprah imbroglio, Lyman’s book reads like a modern companion to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s famously horrifying and reform-inducing exposition of the American meat-packing industry in the early 1900s.
Lyman the author, wielding his personal history to add heft to his arguments, touches on the environmental incentives that inspire many people to become vegetarians. And unless you’re the iron-stomached type who isn’t bothered by the fact that many cattle are fattened, in part, through a diet of (to put it bluntly) shit, I don’t recommend reading Mad Cowboy before heading out to Morton’s.
Lyman estimates that he spends only 30 days a year at his Alexandria apartment. The rest of the time he’s on the road representing one of his many organizations (Voice for a Viable Future and the International Vegetarian Union are just two of the groups he heads) and preaching about the horrors of beef.
And I do mean preaching. At an Earth Day festival held at Eastern High School this past spring, Lyman delivered an arm-swinging speech in which he delighted the crowd by launching missives at corporate farmers and those who empower them: “Sixteen pounds of grain will feed one cow, 32 people, or one Rush Limbaugh.” At the end of his talk, the MC announced, “Ladies and gentlemen: Howard Lyman, the James Brown of vegetarian living.”
Lyman is much calmer going person to person than he is clutching a mike. Over lunch, he says nothing when I order a beef taco. Education, he says, is a layering process, much like painting a car. “What I tell people when I speak to them is: ‘You don’t want to believe what I have to say.’ Food is a very personal decision. If you believe that your diet is the right diet for you, there’s nothing that I can say that will get you to change your diet. Remember that the minute you talk to somebody about their diet, you’re pointing a finger at their mother.”
Lyman’s not only working against mother, the beef-industry lobby, and human complacency, but also, at least in my case, the romance of the meal. We talk about his book and the others like them that we’ve both read, and I tell him that while I’m always affected by the revelations—particularly the notion that cattle are turning once-lush flatlands into desert—I’ve never been so moved as to retire my steak knives. I tell him of my reluctance to deny myself simple mealtime pleasures, and elaborate a small list of memories I wouldn’t trade for any cause: sharing coldcuts in February with American expats in a cramped Siberian apartment. The mussels I slurped with my girlfriend under a stairway in a Paris bistro. The meatballs I make for my transient friends on Sunday evenings. The quiet lunches of summer sausage and homemade wheat bread I ate with my grandparents as a kid. It’s a waste of life to spend it scheming to prolong it, I tell him. Fear should be something to escape, not confront, when you sit down at the dinner table.
“In the back of your mind,” Lyman responds, “you know how veal calves are treated. You know how the body deals with meat and carcinogens and toxins. You know what the earth can handle. One of these days, you’re going to sit in front of the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?’” He’s grinning, not smiling, when he predicts, “You’ll be a vegetarian within five years. You already know too much.”
A steak war of a different sort is intensifying on 19th Street, where Smith & Wollensky has dug itself a bunker just a block away from the Palm/Sam & Harry’s stronghold. The glut in high-end prices is less surprising than the pileup of almost identical menus—steakhouse regulars won’t even need to look at S&W’s. Just ask for the loud-crunching hashbrowns with your favorite cut; I’ll take that plump, buttery, minimalist filet, nearly raw in the middle and five times more tender than cow meat really should be. In a word, perfect.
Smith & Wollensky, 1112 19th St. NW, (202) 466-1100.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.