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Spring came to Capitol Hill this past Monday with a blast of curry and an all-you-can-stand vegan buffet featuring enough fiber to ensure SRO in the Rayburn Hall lavatories. The occasion was the 11th annual Great American Meatout, sponsored by the Bethesda-based Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM).

Like La Motta vs. Robinson, Vidal vs. Buckley, or Frankenberry vs. Chocula, the Meatout promised a classic clash of sensibilities: militant herbivores lobbying 200 of the ultimate carnivores, Hill rats who prey on the electorate for a living. To imagine the usual fever of a FARM event, picture Randall Terry bullhorning a second-trimester 16-year-old in front of a free clinic; replace the girl with an agriculture secretary or a $5.25-an-hour McDonald’s fry cook, and you’ve got the scene in a nutshell.

But this year’s affair turned out rather benign. A quarter of a roomful of well-scrubbed, 20ish staffers showed up looking for a free lunch, and were grossly outnumbered by color-seeking journalists.

“This is the lowest attendance in years,” lamented FARM President Alex Hershaft. “Somebody theorized that it’s because the staffers are being kept so busy by the Republicans.”

Every first day of spring, Hershaft and his animal-loving Bethesda crew coordinate 12,000 members nationwide in an effort to get the country to take the Meatout Pledge: “to kick the meat habit on March 20, at least for a day, and to explore a less violent, more wholesome diet.” This is done locally at a congressional reception and nationally through “Lifestivals,” “Steakouts,” street theater, slaughterhouse vigils, mock trials of Frank Perdue, and acts of restrained civil disobedience.

A surprisingly soft-spoken Polish immigrant, Hershaft bears the beady-eyed mournfulness that comes from a lifetime of activism. This is complemented by the requisite Naderite three-piece poly-brown suit, including peekaboo tie exiting south of his vest, and the standard-issue Scuffpuppies that provide maximum comfort while storming administration buildings.

Hershaft was a firecracker at the Meatout, zipping from the “Rape of Mother Earth” fact-sheet table to the starving-African-children-that-should-be-feeding-on-Farm-Belt-grain collage, back to the free samples of BBQ Fib Rib low-fat veggie sticks and Cajun Jerky vegetable-protein products. Abundanza! If you’ve ever licked your fingers after feeding your dog Snausages, you can approximate the taste of these epicurean delights.

Still, they couldn’t compare to the vegecentric entrees. The lovely Rama Caterers from Burtonsville—looking fresh from New Delhi, with their 6-yard sari wraps—served it up with a smile: saffron rice and fruit bread, veggie balls that looked like Franco American’s version of Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger, and Indian curry that looked and tasted as if it should be ladled into tin cups on a boot camp chow line.

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Then there was the vegetable/pasta salad tofu, which tasted like starched Gerber. Opined one staffer after tasting the lumpy gruel, “I’m not going to give up meat.” The pattern held on almost all the taste tests: Not wishing to offend, the Hillians would politely smile, shrug their shoulders, and chug fruit juice before their epiglottis convulsed and they took a chunk down the windpipe.

Musical entertainment consisted of an aging folkie named Jim Harris. After his first number, Hershaft treated Harris to a solo smattering of applause, to which the singer replied, “Thanks Alex…boy, I can’t wait to get to this food.”

Harris pressed on anyway, playing songs from his platinum smash For Animals and the Earth, featuring cuts such as “To the Earth” and “Expressing,” which contain lyrics that would make Judy Collins blush.

Keynote speaker Howard Lyman, an ex-Montana cattle rancher who’d apparently been struck on the Damascus road, began, “Never applaud until you find out if the person up there is worth it.” Few did.

But that didn’t stop him from working up a sweaty revival-tent fervor fraught with alarmist pap like, “Your fork is the most dangerous weapon in the arsenal of homo sapiens.” Lyman went on to weave an amalgam of corn-crafted homilies and Vacation Bible School hand motions: “The emperor has no clothes….We are going toward the cliff at 100 miles per hour….If you point at somebody else, you point one finger at them and three back at yourself.” (Try it, it works!)

Though Hershaft didn’t lecture, he’s no stranger to doomsaying. In fact, Hershaft has written many things in many places—at least 22 cities from Austin to Anchorage, as the National Cattleman’s Association has pointed out. In an effort to get his anti-meat message on local Op-Ed pages, Hershaft wrote a form letter that was circulated across the country and appeared in print with his name as a citizen of that locality and no FARM affiliation mentioned. Hershaft says it was all a mistake, that his members were supposed to retype the form letter and submit it in their own name. Still, he drew a rap on the knuckles from Editor & Publisher and the ire of duped editorial page editors.

If the Meatout proved a pale attempt at proselytizing, the celebrity backers for this year’s campaign—none of whom attended Monday’s event—are even more of a disappointment. They include: fledgling comic Kevin Nealon (who, by the looks of his work on SNL, takes himself very seriously); horror show hostess Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; and Casey Kasem, who couldn’t be less of a real person if he was his platinum-, helium-, and silicon-injected wife, Jean.

One may recall, in contrast, the beef industry’s “Real Food for Real People” campaign, which featured the likes of James Garner, Cybill Shepherd, Lauren Bacall, Reba McEntire, and Larry Bird. That zoophagous quintet has tallied one Oscar nomination, two Emmys, two Emmy nominations, two Tonys, two Grammys, and three NBA championships between them—as well as a few purple hearts (Garner for non-Rockford-related activity).

And that’s just the Beef Industry Council. Throw in Peggy Fleming for the Pork Council and the late Dinah Shore, Holly Farm’s chicken huckster, and that’s 10 more Emmys and an Olympic gold.

Compare that lineup to FARM’s national council for the Meatout—a compendium of C-listers just a phone call away from signing 8-by-10s at D.C. Armory boat shows. Other FARM spokesmodels include Chrissie Hynde, Sara Gilbert, and Ally Sheedy. With their frumpy clothes, stringy hair, and scorbutic complexions, there’s nothing wrong with any of them that a bacon-double-cheeseburger and/or two years in the Actors Studio couldn’t fix.

Still unconvinced? Keep in mind that unhealthy beef-eating Lauren Bacall is still kicking at 70, while former Meatout spokesperson River Phoenix, who ingested at least as many vegetables as he did speedballs, was 23 when he joined his slaughtered barnyard compadres at the celestial smorgasbord. Steakhead Larry Bird won three consecutive MVPs, while Bills Coach and Meatout enthusiast Marv Levy lost four consecutive Super Bowls.

Science be damned, the performance-based results are conclusive: It pays to eat meat.