FIVE years ago I made the most difficult, painful decision of my life. I converted from a carnivore to a vegetarian.
A bit of back story. I moved to L.A. in 1992 after growing up in Nebraska, where beef is sacrosanct. Enough Nebraskans are consumed with meat that gristle is classified as a vegetable. They eat pork rinds for dessert. To succumb to "mad cow" disease is considered a natural death. There's a steakhouse in Omaha that serves a 32-ounce noontime T-Bone. In pre-meal rituals, restaurant diners swallow enormous cheese- and lard-laden bovine hunks half their body weight and call them "appetizers."
Whole Foods store in all of Nebraska, and when I'm back, I never have trouble finding a parking spot.
It wasn't easy telling my Cornhusker relatives, several of whom still farm, that I'd gone vegetarian. They'd have been less disgusted if I had joined the Taliban.
Even now when I'm visiting, my mother speaks to relatives in hushed tones. "You know he's a vegetarian." (Said with the same inflection as the word "communist" in the '50s.)
The vegetarian contempt is rooted in the fact that at one time eastern Nebraska was proud home to the Omaha stockyards, second only to Chicago as the nation's largest. Many locals come from families that earn their livelihoods from meatpacking and related activities. Omaha Steaks employs thousands. If enough Americans turn vegetarian, there will be an ill wind blowing across the local economy. You wanna talk recession. . . .
Thus the decision to stop eating meat wasn't easy. I made the switch after I read several books by cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish and took to heart his argument that vegetarianism wards off coronary artery disease, an illness that runs in my family. I have avoided statins out of my natural bias toward holistic health practices. Already a runner and on-and-off health fanatic, I embraced a dietary sea change that led me to permanently just say no to beef.
The good news is that, according to some experts, I'm adding years to my life. The bad news is five years later I still miss meat so much I sometimes park outside Sizzler and watch people leaving with doggy bags, tempted to swap my car for half a gnawed-on chicken-fried steak.
But mostly I have an overall feeling of well-being. My running times have improved since I'm essentially doing carbo loading every day. I wake up clear-headed and feeling like I'm 15 years old, and that's not bad -- to feel 15, only with some money in the bank and a rudimentary knowledge of how the world works.
To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, I just don't go home often. But when I do, I'm greeted by some wonderfully warm, ingratiating people who think that gristle is a vegetable.
Brad Dickson is a former writer for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and co-author of "Race You to the Fountain of Youth."