IN an ideal world, vegetarians would be built like camels. Not humpbacked, of course, but able to sustain themselves through long stretches by tapping stored energy reserves, like previously consumed soy products.

But after the first three dinners in my new hometown, where I moved from New York to cover the Midwest for this newspaper, even this veteran vegetarian was flagging.

This city, after all, is celebrated as a Mecca of meat. And any newcomer should expect to start with a tour of the most venerable purveyors of cows, pigs and chickens in what I’ve been told are their most delicious forms.

So, yes, I’ve “eaten” at some of these famous restaurants. There was the meal at the Golden Ox steakhouse (baked potato), Stroud’s fried chicken (rolls) and Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, where, searching for vegetarian options on the menu, skipping over the lard-bathed French fries, pausing to consider the coleslaw, I ordered the safest option (a mug of Budweiser).

After three days of this, starving, I went alone to the nearest Chinese restaurant I could find, where I feasted on a steaming plate of meatless mapo tofu.

It should be stated right up front that the Midwest, with its rich culture, stark natural beauty and superlative decency, quickly defies stereotypes. Living in the middle of the country is very different from living in the middle of nowhere.

But make no mistake: meat-loving is one stereotype that the region wears with pride. Lard still plays a starring role in many kitchens, bacon comes standard in salads, and perhaps the most important event on Kansas City social calendars is a barbecue contest.

Even though the region boasts some of the finest farmland in the world, there is a startling lack of fresh produce here. This is a part of the country — and there’s no polite way to put this — where the most common vegetable you’ll see on dinner plates is iceberg lettuce.

“The mentality of the Midwest is, green is garnish,” explained Heidi Van Pelt-Belle, who runs Füd, a vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City.  

As a result, many heartland vegetarians say that eating, that most essential activity, can be a constant struggle. Longtime members of the club recall the days when doctors and family members alike warned that forgoing meat would result in serious malnutrition. This was not hyperbole to those who, lacking other options, subsisted on pizza.

Over the years, many have learned tricks, like calling ahead to a restaurant to negotiate a special entree. Dinner party? Best to eat first, knowing that side dishes might be the only options. Some say they have learned to cook for themselves more, to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions, if not outright mockery, that comes with eating in public.

Just outside Iowa City, Sparti’s Gyros taunts vegetarians even as it caters to them. The menu includes the Greek Veggie Wheat Pita, but adds a punch line: “For people who just don’t like eating. Put some meat on it!”

In Nebraska, a place where cattle outnumber people, vegetarians are sometimes accused of undermining the state economy. The owner of what was billed as the lone vegetarian restaurant in Omaha said it had several pounds of ground beef thrown at its doors shortly after opening. After a short run, it closed last year.

“Being a vegetarian in Nebraska is like being a Republican in Brooklyn — less of an outcast than a novelty,” said David Rosen, who became a vegetarian as a teenager in Omaha and is now a writer in Brooklyn. “Except that you don’t have to prepare special meals for Republicans.”