Fixings for Fitter Firefighters

Years ago, Hickory firefighters used to eat firehouse meals that'd make a nutritionist scream: Steaks, spaghetti, pots of potatoes, tureens of gravy. Gut expanders.

"Back in the early '70s, nobody thought about healthy eating," said Willie Warren, an engineer at Station No. 5 who's worked for the Fire Department for 32 years. "Just whatever tasted good."

These days, the bosses are paying more attention to what goes down their firefighters' gullets. On Monday, Warren and about 10 of his colleagues clustered around a table at Institution Food House, a food service distributor, where corporate chef Dirk Rusthoven taught the guys how to make -- ahem -- Chunky Garden Gazpacho served in a bread boule.

IFH is offering cooking sessions for firefighters three times a day through today. It's part of the Fire Department's effort to make its firefighters fitter.

Three years ago, the department used a $158,000 federal grant to buy exercise equipment for all seven of its stations. The department has also worked with a Lenoir-Rhyne College professor to monitor firefighters' fluid loss during fires.

Now this. The department chiefs want to teach them how to make meals quickly and easily -- they can't count on enough time to prepare feasts -- but with fresher, lower-fat ingredients.

On Monday, along with the gazpacho, Rusthoven showed them how to make grilled chicken or salmon with a marinade of extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, garlic, salt and pepper; a roasted corn-and-black bean salsa; rice pilaf; grilled vegetables; and, for dessert, Warm Zabaglione (a kind of custard) with Fresh Summer Berries.

This is all more nutritious than, say, Quickie Pot Roast with Instant Mash. Warren, at 52, can appreciate the difference. "I was 20 when I started with the Fire Department," he said, "and what I could eat then I can't eat now."