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Firefighters in texas go vegan { March 26 2006 }

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March 26, 2006
Firefighters Gone Vegan? Even Austin Is Impressed

AUSTIN, Tex. The image of big brawny firefighters devouring platters of four-alarm chili, sizzling steaks and double cheeseburgers is as much a part of firehouse lore as brass fire poles and heroic Dalmatians.

"They're dinosaurs, they're big meat eaters," said Joseph T. Bonanno Jr., a former New York City firefighter and the author of "The Firehouse Grilling Cookbook" (Broadway Books, 1998).

But not here.

In this health-conscious state capital, sometimes called the People's Republic of Austin, maverick behavior is nothing out of the ordinary. But when Jimmy John's, the local sandwich joint, names a sandwich after you, "the Engine 2 Veggie Sandwich"; when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gives you an award for "Animal-Friendly Firehouse of the Year"; and when people call out to passing fire trucks, "Are y'all the vegans?" even Austin is taking notice.

The five firefighters of Team C at Firehouse 2 Rip Esselstyn, James Rae, Matt Moore, Derick Zwerneman and Scott Walters now eat vegan, taking turns whipping up plant-based fare like meatless and cheeseless pizza, pasta primavera and spinach enchiladas.

It did not happen because they shared a love of sprouts.

A routine cholesterol test left Specialist Rae, 37, shaken. The American Heart Association ranks anyone with a level of 240 or more high risk; Specialist Rae's hit 344.

"I was floored, scared," he said. "I had no clue."

All but one of his male relatives had succumbed to heart disease by age 59. Specialist Rae's father, the sole survivor, had a heart attack and then triple bypass surgery in his mid-50's.

The team's nutrition guru came to his aid. Firefighter Esselstyn, 43, a professional triathlete for a decade before joining the department in 1997, was living proof that meat was not necessary for hard work and endurance. He became a vegetarian in 1986 and a vegan in 2002. He persuaded the group to rally around Specialist Rae and start cooking vegan dishes.

Firefighter Esselstyn knew through his father's work that a strict vegan diet would help. His father, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., had been a general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and still conducts research there.

Dr. Esselstyn's 12-year trial with patients with what looked like terminal heart disease showed that a very-low-fat, plant-based diet with cholesterol-lowering medicine could bring striking improvement.

Heart disease "never need exist," Dr. Esselstyn said, but if it does, "it never need progress."

His son cited another reason for improving Specialist Rae's health.

"J. R. became more of a liability than an asset to us," Firefighter Esselstyn said, glancing at his partner with a half-smile. "Do I want a guy with a bad ticker dragging me out?"

But while Specialist Rae adhered to the diet at the firehouse, he was not as strict outside. He became what he calls a flexitarian, someone who occasionally eats meat or fish. When that did not lower his cholesterol enough, he switched to the vegan diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Now, he said, his cholesterol is under 200, and he calls the way he eats "a way of life."

While Team C eats vegan at work each man shops and cooks dinner twice a month the other two members, Lieutenant Walters and Firefighter Zwerneman, are not always such purists at home.

At a recent party catered by a barbecue restaurant, Firefighter Zwerneman did not stick to just the beans, a mistake he later realized.

"The next night I was paying for it," he said. "I felt sort of the way I did after my first couple of tofu dinners, which didn't go so well either. But now I'm one of the weirdos like everybody else."

For the other 10 men in Firehouse 2, the vegan diet has not gone down so easily. Inside the freezer are a bag of cheeseburgers, French fries and a package of beef next to vegan offerings. One firefighter even put up provocative posters on the walls, including one that reads, "Beef. It's What's for Dinner."

Firefighter Esselstyn and the others shrug it off.

"Seventy percent of our calls are medical," he said. "Every day we see the ravages of people eating to their heart's content." If not for Specialist Rae's cholesterol, he said, "there would have been someone else, someone prediabetic or obese who would have prompted us."

To reach the public, Team C has a Web site with goofy pictures of the men posing with fruits and vegetables, campy biographies, health links, and recipes like Paul McCartney's enchiladas, tortilla pie and Station 2's award-winning wraps.

Even the firehouse carnivores benefit from the vegan cookery, routinely scavenging leftovers. As Edward Roel, a driver on the B shift, admitted, "They taste good."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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