Tofu outmuscles red meat at firehouse
Despite ridicule, four firefighters stick to vegetarian diet at work.
Claire Osborn
October 09, 2005

They used to eat big, fat, juicy steaks. One-pound hamburgers. Lots of fried fish.

Then one of the firefighters at Austin Fire Station No. 2 got a cholesterol reading over 300 high enough above the American Heart Association's threshold of 200 that he was at high risk for a heart attack.

Let it be vegetarian. Firefighters Rip Esselstyn, left,
 and Scott Walters cook 'Paul McCartney' meatless
enchiladas in the station's kitchen.

That was enough to persuade James "J.R." Rae the one with the high cholesterol and other firefighters on his shift to give up the fatty food. Go vegetarian.

That was two years ago, and their choice still sends their comrades at other fire stations into gales of laughter.

"They don't need a lawn mower," said firefighter Spc. Zane Carson, who works at Fire Station No. 19 on Balcones Drive in Northwest Austin. "Just put them on a leash and let them graze awhile."

The guys at Fire Station No. 2, on West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Central Austin, laugh off the teasing. They see the results of bad eating habits people debilitated or dying from heart attacks and diabetes all the time on fire calls, firefighter Rip Esselstyn said.

A professional triathlete and vegan (a vegetarian who eats no animal products), Esselstyn, 42, is the one who inspired his three co-workers Rae, Lt. Scott Walters and firefighter Derick Zwerneman to go vegetarian.

It's not easy, Esselstyn said.

The other 11 firefighters at the station still keep the fridge stocked with bacon cheeseburgers and pizza. When someone gets promoted, it's tradition to celebrate with a shrimp and steak dinner. Residents stop by to deliver cookies and cakes.

"The whole culture of the firehouse is based on food," Esselstyn said. "One of the challenges between fire calls is, you get bored, and you want to eat, so you float to the refrigerator."

Rae, 36, admits with a grin that he hit the fridge regularly before the day he found out his cholesterol level was 335 a dangerous level for a man who has had only one male relative live beyond his 50s because of heart attacks.

Rae, who is married with two children, has a tattoo on his right arm of a Maltese cross engulfed in flames with the words "Firefighter Brotherhood."

He said his favorite foods were fried chicken, fried fish and steak. "I ate redneck," he said.

But after the cholesterol test and a chewing out from Esselstyn's father, a doctor Rae said he learned to love Esselstyn's firehouse vegetarian cooking: veggie lasagna, vegetable stir-frys, sweet potato fries and "Paul McCartney" enchiladas with spinach and portobello mushrooms. Walters and Zwerneman tried it and jumped on the bandwagon.

Now the four take turns cooking for one another at the fire station.

Walters, 42, got so enthusiastic about it that he made chocolate pudding with tofu and tricked another firefighter and sworn vegetarian hater into eating it.

Zwerneman, 31, said that he is not vegetarian but that eating vegetarian at the fire station has made him eat healthier with his family at home.

Walters and Rae also said they still eat meat with their families at home but try to stick to chicken and fish. Rae said he sometimes still craves a "big, red juicy steak" and occasionally eats a piece of pizza with meat during a shift.

But something must be working: His cholesterol level has fallen 100 points.