The Main Course and Cause: Veggies


Sunday night in Venice. Storm-tossed palm fronds litter the sidewalk outside the canal-side home-cum-gallery of artists Karen and Tony Barone. Inside, perhaps three dozen guests help themselves to a vegetarian buffet served on a Formica top set on the shell of a 1958 Cadillac.

There is sprouted hummus from Venus of Venice, meatless beef stroganoff from Native Foods, chicken-less sweet and sour chicken from Vegan Express, and so on. The star of the evening is a pizza made with a milk-less mozzarella that melts like real cheese. Cooks hand out their cards, but they are not any cooks. They wear turbans and turquoise Easter hats.

The meal is a prelude to an inspirational speech from vegan activist Howard Lyman, a.k.a. “the mad cowboy.” The nickname comes from the mad cow crisis of 1996, when he appeared on the “Oprah” show and, based on his description of cattle-feeding practices, Oprah Winfrey declared that she would never eat burgers again. Lyman then became a co-defendant with Winfrey in a product libel case with the Texas cattlemen, which, after a six-week trial in 1998, they won.


Lyman is in town to tape an appearance on “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” and to rally the faithful behind his vegetarian charity, Voice for a Viable Future. The Barones stand near the buffet, greeting guests. Tony is the corpulent bon viveur; Karen is super-slim and decked in knee-high boots, fish-net stockings, hot pants, long wig and Cleopatra-issue eye makeup. The Barones can’t remember when they first heard Lyman speak, but they were so impressed they have been intermittently opening their home for him to give talks ever since. The attendees are local cooks, farmers, friends of friends called in to hear the prophet. The Barones point to the friend they have invited in hopes of converting her to vegetarianism. “We’re worried about her health,” confides Karen.

“Karen and I have been vegetarian for 30 years and vegan for half of that!” cries Tony, hugging Karen. “Initially we did it for very selfish reasons. We wanted to live longer. Then you realize you don’t have to kill animals or screw up the environment.”

As the plates are cleared, the guests take seats among the scattered sculptures. Lyman gives the speech that he has been giving since becoming a vegetarian in 1990. He tells how he was a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Great Falls, Mont., with 7,000 head of cattle, how illness forced him to look at his diet and his farm practices, how he sold the farm and how a second shot at health set him on the road to preach the cause of vegetarianism. He hails the resolve of members of the audience--the farmer who stopped raising grain for livestock feed and switched to beans for vegetarians, the chef who opened a vegan fast-food restaurant, and so on. There is applause. Lyman is preaching to the choir, he knows. The idea is to make the choir get out and convert more people into vegetarians.

“You can either go to the good side, or the bad side,” he says, “but it’s up to you. When I see what Gandhi did in India, what Martin Luther King did in America and what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa, I am reminded: Never underestimate what one person can do.”