From top to bottom: firefighters Rip Esselstyn, Scott Walters, James Rae and Derick Zwerneman.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Engine2.org
To the outside world, Texans are cowboys. They wear big hats, drive big trucks and top their blue jeans with belt buckles as big as license plates.
Texas brings to mind mythical cattle drives across dusty plains, where a chef named Cookie serves hunks of meat to guys who talk like Sam Elliott in those "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercials.
In this imagined landscape, vegetarians blend in about as well as animal-rights activists.
So it might seem strange that a Texas firehouse won People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) Animal-Friendly Firehouse of the Year Award. Besides, aren't firehouses, even those outside Texas, supposed to smell like a simmering pot of chili?
Not Austin's Engine House 2. During certain shifts, one is more likely to pick up the scent of tofu than beef wafting out of the kitchen.
That's because some Engine House 2 firefighters decided to make all firehouse meals vegan after one of them got back alarming blood-test results. (A vegan diet excludes all animal products and by-products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. By definition, a vegetarian diet is not as strict about by-products.)
But winning the PETA award has underscored that changing one's diet isn't always as simple as buying different groceries -- political implications must be considered.
Making the Switch
Firefighter James Rae's blood cholesterol was in the 340s. That news coupled with his family's poor heart-health history, got him thinking about changing his eating habits.
"We couldn't get a male in the Rae family, or my mom's side of the family, to live into their sixties," Rae said. "Big wake-up call. ... I'm athletic, but you can't change your blood cholesterol with just being athletic."
Rae said he used to wonder how someone as active as a weight-lifting firefighter could live without eating meat.
"I was a really big meat eater," he said. But fellow firefighter Rip Esselstyn, a former professional triathlete, helped convince Rae that he not only could get enough protein without eating meat, but that an animal-free diet could help stem and reverse damage done to his high-risk heart and arteries.
Esselstyn, who became a vegetarian in 1987 and a vegan three years ago, told Rae what Esselstyn's father has been telling people for years: A strict vegan diet can prevent, arrest and even reverse coronary artery disease. Caldwell Esselstyn, a former general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, piloted a study on the effect a vegan diet has on heart disease.
Rae and Esselstyn then convinced the three other firefighters on their shift -- Matt Moore, Derick Zwerneman and Scott Walters -- to join them for vegan lunches at the firehouse. They liked the meals. They even entered one of their vegan dishes into a healthy wagon, or firehouse meal, contest and won.
Now, they prepare vegan food for all their station meals. The firefighters even inspired a nearby sandwich shop to create the Engine 2 Special -- a veggie sandwich on whole wheat.
After working together for years, Esselstyn and his colleagues have come to agree on some of the benefits of a vegan diet. But their reasons for cutting down on their consumption of animal products start to diverge at health benefits.
"I'm a hunter and a fisherman," Rae said. He said that while Esselstyn is proud of receiving PETA's Proggy Award, he's more ambivalent. "I'm not embarrassed of it, but PETA's not an organization I've ever actively backed." But Rae points out that the firefighters didn't nominate themselves for the award for progress.
In fact, before the firehouse got the Proggy, Rae's only interaction with PETA was less than celebratory. About seven years ago, he was deer hunting in his native Arizona when a group of people he said were PETA activists walked through the woods making noise to chase off game.
"It was non-confrontational," Rae said of that incident.
Esselstyn, on the other hand, embraces PETA's animal rights message.
"For compassion reasons and for environmental reasons, it's the best way to go," Esselstyn said of following a vegan diet. He said he finds factory farming practices inhumane and environmentally destructive.
"To think that a pig or a cow or a chicken has no more feelings than your dog or cat is ludicrous," Esselstyn said. Of the environmental arguments against factory farming, he said that because of the vast amount of resources the farms require, "eating less meat is the second most important positive environmental decision that we as people can make, only behind our choice of transportation."
Responses to the Proggy Award, which hangs in the firehouse, suggest that some fellow Austin firefighters disagree with Esselstyn's politics. The reactions have ranged from playful to openly disdainful.
"We get ribbed on pretty good," Rae said. He said firefighters have said things like, "'Why don't you just go out in the front yard and eat some grass.'" The first week the award was displayed, someone took it down and put it in Rae's locker.
Others have scrawled on the messages on the plaque, which bears the image of a leaping frog, attesting to the tastiness of amphibian parts.
One firefighter even called PETA a terrorist organization.
But Rae and Esselstyn said that some firefighters have complimented their vegan recipes.
"You have certain people that think that we're cuckoo, and then you have another half that think we're doing a great thing," Esselstyn said.
Esselstyn and Moore are the only full-time vegans in the crew. But the others have significantly cut down on eating meat.
Still, both Rae and Esselstyn said firefighters might want to consider a vegetarian diet for health reasons. After all, heart attacks are the number one cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths.
And besides feeling better since cutting back on animal products, Rae said he got his blood cholesterol level below 200.