On feeding firefighters

On the anniversary of 9/11 the other week, I was watching a 2002 documentary that began as a profile of a rookie firefighter in New York City and ended up as a film about the larger events of the day. There were lots of scenes from the firehouse in the weeks leading up to the attack; many were of the firehouse kitchen, where the probationary firefighters (or “probies”) were tasked with preparing the shift meal. I was instantly fascinated, but I had a lot of questions the film didn’t answer, so I wanted to ask an actual firefighter how it all goes down.

Maj. John A. Turner retired from the Louisville Fire Department after 35 years of service, 16 of which were spent as captain of Truck Company #1 in the West End. He was kind enough to answer my questions about firehouse cuisine.

First, I was curious about the firehouse kitchen’s appliances. I asked if most stations had electric stoves (imagining for some reason that firefighters would generally consider an electric hob safer than a gas range). Not so, says Turner. “Most firehouses are equipped with gas stoves.”

How is the food budget determined? “Most firehouses charge, on the average, $8 ­– $10 per person per day. There are also everyday staples that are kept in a ‘commissary locker,’ which firefighters pay $20 – $25 a paycheck (every two weeks) to stock.”

I wondered if it was common to leave the cooking to probies, and how the cooking duties are assigned. “Cooking is on a rotating basis with the probationary firefighter assisting with the meals until they can handle it on their own,” Turner says. Is there ever a person who’s so bad at cooking, he or she is simply off the hook and never has to cook again? “That just does not happen. It’s like you’ll keep cooking till you get it right.”

Does anyone ever get experimental or adventurous in the kitchen? “If you cooked off the cuff and bombed, it was bad. I have seen a few plates full of food go in the trash before with some not-so-pleasant words about the meal,” he said, dryly. “Low-effort meals didn’t happen very often because the cook would get talked to about it.” My imagination colored in the details.

Do firefighters ever get sick of chili? “Chili on Saturday is traditional in the firehouse. I don’t think anyone ever got sick of it — they may have got sick from it, depending on the cook,” he says, laughing. I couldn’t bring myself to ask the major if firefighters put spaghetti in the bottom of their chili bowls, although I have my suspicions. As a huge chili fan/aficionado, and three-time champion of the Phoenix Hill Chili Cook-Off, I simply did not want those suspicions confirmed. Because I’m Team “No Pasta in Chili, Ever” for life!

Do firefighters in general eat more than any random group of other people? “I don’t think firefighters in a small setting eat any more than any other group,” Turner says. “When they assemble in a large group, they might eat more.”

No kidding. As a former caterer, I remember one firefighter buffet dinner where I was caught off guard by the rate at which firefighters emptied the chafing dishes. I could barely keep up replenishing the tables. That was the day I learned to always ask prospective clients not only how many people would be eating, but what sort of a group the guests would be.

But let me add this: I might prep extra food for a firefighter event, but I’d prep extra-and-then-some for any event where it’s all ladies. For some reason, ladies eat like birds when it’s a mixed crowd, but firefighters have nothing on a gang of ladies eating without any men around.

I once prepared a dessert buffet for a women’s networking event and I decorated the tables with giant shards of chocolate blocks, only to discover during cleanup that somehow they’d eaten the décor; many of the pieces were four 6-pound hunks of just pure raw chocolate. I still don’t know how they did it. Such tiny purses! (They didn’t nick it, they ate it.)

Many thanks to Maj. Turner for satisfying my curiosity about firehouse cuisine, and even bigger thanks for his years of service in our city. I’m inspired. I might just amble down the street to my local firehouse and offer to cook them a meal one night this fall.

But it probably won’t be chili.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou.