Fires sometimes interrupt dinner preparations at Fire Station 35, a few blocks from University Towne Centre. But when I watched the men one late afternoon, I was struck by the calm grace of their motions. One of the paramedics, a dark-haired man with a body that could have been sculpted by Polykleitos, washed spinach and filled a big silver colander with the springy emerald leaves.
Another firefighter peeled white-skinned potatoes in a smooth, steady rhythm. John Stuemke, the main cook for this evening’s meal, had his hands on a four-and-a-half-pound hunk of flank steak he purchased at the Regents Road Vons a few hours earlier. Stuemke planned to transform the meat into a roulade, not the plainest dish in the station’s repertoire but not the most exotic either. “We have a saying here that food is love,” Stuemke said. “So we spend more time preparing it.”
I had the impression that Stuemke spoke for his particular station and his particular division, C Division, which enjoys a reputation for culinary excellence. “And John is arguably one of the top five cooks in the entire fire department,” one of his co-workers boasted. But certain conditions foster loving cookery, and they can be found in the ranks of many fire-fighting organizations.
Across the country, it’s common for firefighters to work in 24-hour shifts. In San Diego, shifts begin and end at 8:00 a.m. So while they can eat breakfast at home, firefighters have to be together at lunch and dinner times. They can bring lunch in a sack, and dinner, too, for that matter, but early in this century, a different pattern developed.
“By 1920, motorized fire apparatus replaced horses,” writes Joseph T. Bonanno, Jr., a New York City firefighter and the author of a 1995 book on healthy firehouse cooking. “Haylofts became sleeping quarters and former horse stalls were dismantled to make way for kitchens and dining areas.... One man was appointed to cook and others to assist.” It didn’t take long for firehouse food to become known for being “hearty, plentiful, delicious,” Bonanno continues. “Today every firehouse in the country has a kitchen, most of which are used to prepare meals. Certainly, firefighters around the nation resort to take-out meals from time to time, but more often than might be expected, they cook from scratch, taking great pride in their food.”
On the East Coast, when firefighters bring in their own fare, they’re known as “rackers.” The term refers to the hose rack outside, where gastronomic individualists once were banished in disgust. San Diego firefighters use the more prosaic term “brown-baggers.” Some are vegetarians or have dietary restrictions, while others “-can’t get along,” said Ron Nelsen. “They argue and bicker over food, so they just bring their own meals.” He added that while a few individuals at Station 35 brown-bag, no one in his division does. He sounded pleased by this.
Like Stuemke, Nelsen has a reputation as an excellent cook. Talkative and outgoing, he answered questions while Stuemke butterflied the thick, red piece of steak. According to Nelsen, each person in the division donates six dollars to a chow fund every day they work together. They pay it first thing in the morning to cover the costs of that day’s lunch and dinner. When he started with the department in 1985, the daily fee was around three dollars, Nelsen recalled. “But I think it’s still a pretty good deal, to get two good meals for six dollars. We do pretty well for that. We eat a lot of rice and beans and basic stuff that doesn’t cost very much, and then we supplement with better food sometimes. Sometimes we’ll have leftovers for lunch, and then we’ll have extra money the next day.”
Nelsen explained that 33 people work out of the station, though all 33 are not on the premises at the same time. They’re assigned to three 11-person divisions (A, B, and C) that share duties in a complex pattern. For each division, it works like this:
You’re on for 24 hours, then off for 24, then on and off again three more times — a seven-day stretch altogether. Then you get either four or six days off in a row before starting the on-and-off rotation again.
While all of the city’s firefighters follow this basic pattern, most work out of smaller fire stations. Station 35 houses both a fire truck and engine, plus an ambulance staffed by two paramedics, plus a battalion chief who supervises a much larger area including Del Mar, Rancho Bernardo, Penasquitos, Scripps Ranch, and Mira Mesa.
The building is classic University City — well-maintained and decorous but unadorned by any rakish architectural details. It faces a back wall of the La Jolla Country Day School property across the street.
The station’s kitchen also lacks pretension. An alcove off a much larger room, it’s outfitted with wooden cabinets whose maple stain has worn away in many places.
Stainless steel countertops and battered squares of linoleum flooring also testify that this is a work space.
A nearby doorway leads to four large Hotpoint refrigerators, one for shared condiments and one for each of the station’s three divisions. “We try to keep it separate,” Nelsen said, “’cause there’s pirates around. Different divisions also have different habits and different ideas of what’s a proper diet.”
Nelsen and Stuemke estimate that 7 of the 11 firefighters in their division cook on a regular basis. Many have one or two specialties from which they never stray. “We have one guy on our crew, when he cooks, he cooks spaghetti,” Stuemke said. Another man is known for his fish tacos. He’s “an Irish honky,” the men said — born in Australia of Irish descent. “But his fish tacos are really good. He’ll do the tacos and maybe someone else that day will make the beans.”
Stuemke’s approach to cooking is far more venturesome. “You know what I do? I go to restaurants and I eat something, and I try to figure out what the spices are. Then I just copy it. Every once in a while, it doesn’t come out. But usually I have pretty good luck copying. I’d say half the things I cook are new experimentations.”
Something about Stuemke makes me think of a Zen initiate. At 42 he’s a trim, fair-skinned man with a small mustache and a hairline that has retreated far from his wispy eyebrows. His voice is gentle, but there’s a knowing patience about him that makes his pronouncements seem weightier. Instead of inscrutable epigrams, he offers recipes.
“Sometimes we stuff chicken breasts with cream cheese and jalapenos and diced chilies,” he’ll say. “That’s a really good one. You cook that in cream of mushroom soup and you serve it over rice.” Stuemke learned how to make that dish from someone else in the fire department, and it reminds him of another one. “We take chicken breasts and butterfly them, and you have peeled green apples, chopped up, cream of chicken soup, cinnamon, and brown sugar and raisins. Put that inside the chicken and roll it up. And you bake it in cream of mushroom soup also. It’s very tasty.”
“I never measure anything,” Stuemke stated, drawing a hoot of confirmation from Nelsen.
“We go shopping and John goes, ‘I need some of this and some of that.’ He’s like a grandmother.”
I asked Stuemke how he became a fireman and how he learned to cook. The latter came “just slowly,” he told me. “My mom and dad were good cooks when I was a kid.” He thinks he must have picked up something from watching them, though he moved out of the house at 17. “My very first job was at Poma’s Delicatessen, right by the pier in Ocean Beach. I used to do the roast beef there, and meatballs. They kind of taught you to do stuff.”
His repertoire expanded when he moved to Costa Rica with a girlfriend and lived on a cattle ranch. There he learned to cook staples such as rice, beans, and potatoes. “Once you learn that, you can start to make Mexican food,” he said, adding that you can also begin to be creative. “Like, you can take a sweet potato and shred it up and then boil it just a little bit so it’s soft. Mix it with egg and make potato pancakes.” He paused for a moment, contemplative, pleased by something. “That was something I ate at a restaurant. Potato pancakes with the creamy cheese on top and caviar. I made it here, but it was kind of work intensive.” Another genial pause. “You can tell if people like it if the dieters go back for more.”
Stuemke also sailed to Hawaii and lived there for a while. When he returned to San Diego, he worked on marine refrigeration and construction on Harbor and Shelter Islands. During this period, he happened to wind up with two firemen for roommates. They suggested that he take the fire academy admissions test, an idea that had never occurred to him. But the job sounded good. “There was insurance. A future.” He was accepted and after graduation took a job as a National City firefighter, at the age of 26. He joined the San Diego organization two years later. National City was a fine place to work, he said, but San Diego offered more opportunities for overtime. As it turned out, he also learned more about cooking in the bigger department, where time is allotted each day for the sharing of meal preparation and consumption.
Although Stuemke has worked at Station 35 for the last nine years, he’s filled in at most of the city’s other 43 stations. Some crews cut corners to save money, he noted. “They buy old cheese. We don’t. We buy whatever we want. We sort of look at prices, but we don’t obsess over the money. We don’t try to save our money at all. Some crews do. Like at Station 1, they have over $1000 in the chow fund. But see, to me that’s like mental illness. To me that’s weird. I wouldn’t tell anybody if I did that.”
Stuemke agrees with the maxim that a firehouse recipe must be easy to prepare. “Almost as a rule of thumb, you have to be able to put it together in an hour.” He disdains steps like peeling or removing seeds, and he declined to tenderize the meat for this evening’s roulade, figuring that “everyone’s teeth are still good.”
After splitting the flank steak almost in half, Stuemke dipped both sides of it in teriyaki sauce, then spread out the carmine flesh on a white plastic cutting board. On the meat he placed a thick layer of spinach leaves. Then he deposited handfuls of grated carrots on the greenery, topping the pile with four pliant strips of cream-colored Swiss cheese. He slipped his fingers under one long side of the meaty base, easing the edge up to fold the assembly over upon itself. Bringing the other side up created a roll that Stuemke transferred, seam-side-down, to a cookie sheet. This could be secured with a string, he admitted, “But I don’t particularly like to do that kind of stuff. It has to be easy.” He poured a little more of the teriyaki sauce to wet all the surfaces of the meaty bundle, then sprinkled a little pepper and garlic powder over it. Then he opened the front of the battered Wolf gas stove and delivered the loaded pan to the 350-degree oven. It would roast for about an hour and 15 minutes, Stuemke said.
In the interim, Nelsen offered to show off the rest of the station house. Our first stop was the large bay containing the fire “truck” and the fire “engine.” The engine is the vehicle that carries the fire hose and pump and water — some 500 gallons of it. The truck is what the public calls a hook and ladder, basically a tractor-trailer equipped with an aerial ladder. Its tiller seat high up at the rear offers “the best ride in town,” according to Nelsen. “It’s really neat up there. Really high. Everybody’s looking at you and waving. Everybody’s honking and yelling, ‘Hey, fireman!’ ”
Once you get a truck rolling, it’s hard to stop them, Nelsen said. “They’re too heavy to stop. So we don’t blow lights anymore, even going to a fire, because people don’t get out of the way. They don’t bother. They’re just too busy, going to an appointment or a meeting or talking on their car phones. They don’t pay attention. This thing weighs more than 40 tons. You’re just going to kill the person you hit.” Nelsen added that the three-year-old truck cost at least $500,000, “and we don’t want to ruin it. It’s really pretty, and we take good care of it.” Indeed, the surface of both vehicles looked flawless, gleaming as if finished in a dozen coats of Japanese lacquer.
Nelsen seemed just as proud of the station’s dormitory. It used to be a single large room filled with beds separated only by flimsy curtains. But four years ago, the station’s firefighters built ten sleeping cubicles, doing all of the construction work themselves: demolition, carpentry, electrical work, air conditioning, painting, stucco. The whole project cost the city just $5000, a fraction of what the tab would have been had outside builders done the remodeling.
“It’s a real good station,” Nelsen pronounced. “New equipment, new dorms, and both our captains are really good guys. The crew makes the station, anyway. I worked in Southeast for years and years and years. The station was wrecked, the rigs were breaking down, we were busier than hell all the time, up all night every night. But we had a great time. Everybody cared. Everybody had a standard to keep up. And the guys that didn’t, left.... Guys who get in trouble eventually get themselves fired. They self-destruct, and they’re gone.”
In the kitchen, the roasting-beef smell seeped from the oven, faint but promising. While Stuemke cleaned up, men drifted into the large adjoining room. It’s an ugly space, built from cinder block and carpeted with a tired, mud-brown fabric, but it has its priorities right. Two industrial-grade dining tables occupy the center, and a half dozen overstuffed recliners line one wall, facing a big-screen TV. As the smell of dinner intensified, a program about historic fires was airing, and the men in the recliners watched it with a concentration that seemed almost reverent.
Another civilized feature of life in the San Diego Fire Department is that an hour and a half is designated each day for physical training. The crews from Station 35 go to Spanos Field at UCSD, where they jog or walk or climb stairs. That’s one reason the department heart attack rate has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years. Another is changing attitudes toward smoking. “Twenty years ago, there’d be five cigarettes going in here right now,” one man commented. Now there are no ashtrays in the station.
Stuemke thinks that his division tends to eat more vegetables than most. A popular lunch choice, for example, is bagels spread with cream cheese and laden with steamed vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes and sprouts. “We like ’em, but a lot of [firefighters] don’t.”
He says his division also is more relaxed about the timing of dinner; they don’t panic if it’s not on the table by five. Indeed, it was close to six when Stuemke drained the boiled potatoes. He dumped them into a bowl and added a glob of margarine, some milk, some minced garlic, and dried tarragon, then pulverized the soft white chunks with a handheld potato masher, tossing in a handful of grated carrots for some unexpected texture.
He turned to me and declared, “I know how to make gravies from scratch. But I’ll often use things like this.” From a cabinet, he pulled out a powdered mix labeled McCormick’s Peppercorn Collection. “It’s quick and easy, and you can take something plain and add a lot of flavor to it. They’re really good.” Stuemke chuckled, as if bemused by the ignorance of food snobs who know nothing about powdered gravy mixes.
The roulade, transformed into a glistening mahogany log, §-oozed melted cheese from its base. It was ready to serve, Stuemke announced, spooning a mixture of meat juice and teriyaki sauce over it. The moment reminded him of one of the last times he prepared an expensive meat dish, a filet mignon. “It was our chief s anniversary. As soon as we sat down to eat, we had a fire.” The chief s wife stayed and watched the food, and when the crew returned, everything tasted fine, according to Stuemke. Even pasta, he claims, can be stopped and started up again without inflicting fatal harm. “The secret is not stirring it,” he told me. “Actually, a lot of Oriental noodles are already cooked, like udon noodles. They’ve already been cooked once, and you just have to reheat them.” Minimizing the stirring helps a lot. “The same with rice. Once I put water in it, I never stir it. Stirring makes it come out gluey. Also, we have brands that we like. We like Mahatma rice. Or we buy the Price Club rice and store it in smaller containers.”
In one of those thoughtful mental leaps that somehow seem sage, Stuemke commented that some firefighters put sugar and butter and syrup on the rice he serves them. He sees this as a clue to their past. “I know they’re from the South, and they were poor when they were kids.”
Once sliced, Stuemke’s roulade surprised me with its prettiness. Each inch-thick cross-section revealed a crisp, mahogany exterior encircling a thick coil of dusky pink meat. Inside this, the spinach leaves had flattened and turned forest green. They in turn corralled the marbled cheese and carrots.
Stuemke placed the platter a few feet down the counter from a stack of plates, aiming for a smooth flow through the kitchen. “You set things up so you can get people in and out fast.” His chief appeared and remarked that Stuemke sometimes goes as far as to make up a sample dinner plate so everyone can see what it should look like. “He has the different colors and the flavors. It’s incredible.” But some people are “real characters,” the chief said. “John will fix a great dinner like this, and regardless of what he’ll do, we have guys that eat out of bowls. They put their entire meal in a bowl and mix it together. It just makes you crazy.” When we all settled down at the tables, someone picked up the conversational thread again. ‘T cooked a pasta-basil chicken at a station in Mission Hills the other day, and one guy actually got mad at me. He wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the night because I fixed a dinner that wasn’t plain enough for him to eat. He got up and fixed toast for dinner.”
“Some people don’t know when they have it good,” the chief said.
“Usually when you hear about a station that brown-bags, you think they’re really not a close bunch,” someone added.
But there can be provocation, another firefighter piped up. “When I was here on B Division, the food the crew cooked was so bad, this is the only place I’ve ever brown-bagged.... They cooked something called ‘tub of grub’ that was noodles and stuff. It became a solid, congealed mass, and there was no way of knowing what was in it. You just couldn’t eat it.”
Stuemke’s roulade, in contrast, had much to commend it. Despite its fancy looks, the tastes were simple: meat and lightly cooked vegetables snuggled up with a bit of melted cheese. And Stuemke was right; the packaged gravy tasted great on the mashed potatoes. The plates cleared fast. Later that evening, the men told me, they would either do some weight training," watch TV, or study for exams. Someone added, “If there’s an emergency, we might leave and come back tomorrow morning at 8:00. That’s just the way it goes.” For the moment, however, no one bolted from the table.
When I asked if fire calls come in the middle of the night, they laughed at the question. Most structure fires occur after 9:00, they said, when people are home from work, using electrical appliances or smoking. “If we have a really good structure fire before eight at night, there’s something unusual happening,” one man stated. He recalled such a fire in which the homeowner had failed to get a blaze going in his fireplace. “So he goes out to the garage and gets his trusty two-gallon can of gasoline for the lawn mower and pours it on. It lights on fire, scares him, and he throws the can over his head. It went through the house, lighting a new fire everywhere it landed. He burned the whole house up.”
The men agreed it’s easy to discern how most fires started. “If you’ve been doing it a long time, you can figure it out yourself a lot of the time,” one of the older men said. This reminded another of a case involving a (now-retired) captain named Bull Smith. “He looked like someone who could be named that. A real character,” the speaker said. “We arrived at a fire up in La Jolla, at a huge rambling ranch house. The owners were watching television at one end — completely unaware that the other end of their house was on fire.” Neighbors called 911.
Once the blaze was extinguished, the firefighters could see that it had started in the room of one of the sons, a problem child who’d been into drugs and other forms of trouble. This boy had appeared to be straightening out his life, but with the fire, the family feared that he might be acting up again. “But he wasn’t,” the firefighter recounted. “He worked at Jack In The Box. The maid had washed his uniforms and folded them. He had set them on the floor next to his bed because he was in a hurry, and he didn’t put them away. Well, Jack In The Box cooks in canola oil. And canola oil is immensely flammable, like linseed oil, and apparently it’s hard to wash it out of clothes. They were still hot from the dryer, and they spontaneously ignited. It was bizarre. But it only took Bull a few minutes to figure it out.”
Station 35 didn’t get any fire calls during my visit; the men say the station’s pace is slow to moderate. In contrast, Station 19 in East San Diego tends to be busy, Steve Ricci warned me. When I arrived at the Ocean View Boulevard facility, near 35th Street, about 11 one morning, the division members told me how they had earlier gone to the exercise track at the 32nd Street Naval Station and had gotten an emergency call just minutes after starting to jog. They’d sprinted back to their fire engine, changed their clothes, and driven down the road, only to have the call canceled. They’d made a U-turn, changed back into their running shoes, “And then about 10 or 15 minutes later, we got another call,” said Kerry Grieser. “That’s when you just call it for the day.” Grieser is a rookie fire-fighter/paramedic who said she’s temporarily assigned to Station 19. Ricci, the division’s engineer, is a 15-year department veteran and such an accomplished chef that he’s handled all the cooking at some of the stations he’s worked at over the years. At this one, however, he takes turns with his three co-workers. Each cooks for a whole “go-around” (the four days in a seven-day work spell). That arrangement “allows you to use leftovers and plan a little bit,” Ricci said, but it also gives you a nice break on the off weeks. Wh2n you’re the permanent cook, “It’s a lot,” he says. “You’re in the kitchen all day long, then you throw in 10 or 12 runs, and it’s a little tedious. I like this better.”
When Ricci arrived at work that morning, he found boneless chicken breasts in one of the other division’s freezers. He decided to defrost and bake them for lunch and to pick up replacements when the crew made their midday shopping run. He explained that he would be using the chickens in his version of a Greek salad, a dish he had prepared on three or four occasions. “It’s kind of like this salad that I’ve had at Oscar’s,” he said.
He, Grieser, and the two other crew members piled into their fire engine and drove to the Lucky store on 43rd Street, a few blocks south of National Avenue. It opened about two years ago, the only supermarket for miles in any direction. Before that, the firefighters had to travel outside their coverage area to get groceries. Less than ten minutes from Station 19, this spacious, gleaming facility is a vast improvement. Once parked, Ricci headed inside, accompanied by Grieser, who carried a radio. Two crew members remained with the vehicle. There have been days when the crew has been called from the store two or three times to tend to grass fires and medical emergencies, Ricci told me. Whenever that happens, store personnel know to hold the half-filled cart for the firefighters’ return.
Ricci raced toward the produce section with Grieser in tow. “Go get me five or six of the roma tomatoes,” he told her. “The cheap ones.”
Ricci grabbed a red onion, then divided his attention between assessing the romaine lettuce and answering my question about how he learned to cook.
His grandmother was from Sicily, and she passed on many of her recipes to all her children, he explained. He in turn had learned a lot of them from his mother and from two uncles who own Italian restaurants — Leonardo’s on El Cajon Boulevard and the Venetian in Point Loma. Ricci washed dishes in the former when he was 14, and over time he was promoted to making pizzas and tending sauces. About 1986 his brother opened Ricci’s restaurant on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, and the firefighter helped there in his spare time until his brother closed the business in 1993. Now cooking feels instinctive, he indicated. “I just kind of look at things. If Tm making something I’ve never done before, I’ll measure it. But if it’s an Italian sauce or something like that, I just kind of wing it, because I’ve done it so many times before.”
Hefting some yellow crook-neck squashes, Ricci commented on how eating habits within the San Diego Fire Department have changed during his 15-year tenure. “When I first came on, God, it was hamburgers for lunch. Or grilled cheese sandwiches. Some stations still do that But I think the majority now are doing salads — taco salads, Caesar salads, pasta salads.” “Excuse me. Can I ask you one question?” An older black woman interrupted Ricci’s discourse. She explained that she had just bought a bicycle for her grandson, a lad of about eight who grinned at Ricci and returned the fireman’s high five. The grandmother wanted to have the bike marked for identification, “and I heard somewhere that the fire department doesn’t do it anymore.”
Ricci told her that was true. “People were coming to the station, and we weren’t there, and they’d try for a week and get frustrated.” Instead he advised her to go to “a typical bicycle store.”
The woman moved on with a friendly nod, and Ricci headed for the meat department He confessed he still didn’t know what he would cook for dinner that day. “I think I’m either going to do a ham or a beef stroganoff, but I have to see how the prices are. On the limited amount of money we have, it’s kind of tight sometimes. Most of the stations check the food section of the paper and use coupons. At least I do.” Studying the cuts of beef, he decided that the stroganoff was out I asked if he keeps a running expenditure total in his head. “Naw,” he said. “After you do it so many times, you kind of know how much you can get away with.”
Replacing the chicken he borrowed was also proving problematic. Grieser had found boneless, skinless pieces for $3.99 a pound, but Ricci told her that was too much. He said she should check the store’s bulk label, while he looked for scalloped potato mix. “Usually I make them from scratch,” he said. “But it’s so much work.... This is just a little quicker.”
Ice cream is a fixture for dessert at most of the stations, he said. “You open up the freezer, and it’s there.” Grieser interrupted him with more bad news on the chicken front: no bulk-price discounts were available. Maybe later today he’d have a chance to shop somewhere else, he told me. If not, “I’ll probably just pay [the other division] back.”
At the checkout counter, Ricci’s total was $37.92, well above his team’s $24 daily contribution. But the total included coffee and a number of condiments, both of which the station as a whole helps to fund. Ricci and Grieser loaded the plastic shopping bags into the side of the fire engine, and the crew started back to the station. Halfway there, two young boys raced to wave as the shiny red vehicle rolled past the yard they were playing in. The fire engine honked back acknowledgment.
Back in the station’s huge kitchen, the chicken was cooked, but the salad still needed assembling. It was already 12:15, and Ricci’s face took on an intent look as he broke open a tube of prepared bread dough from that day’s purchases. Ignoring the directions on the package, he cut the gooey, white mass into six chunks, then shaped each one into a bread stick. Sometimes his wife chastises him for moving so fast that he cuts his fingers, he remarked. “But that’s what you have to do. You start getting some heat if the meal’s late.”
Ricci melted some butter in the microwave, then searched for a brush with which to apply it to the bread sticks. Though many of the drawers in Station 19’s kitchen bear neat labels announcing the presence of “Peelers,” “Measuring Spoons,” “Silverware,” Ricci couldn’t find the brush and made do with a spoon, then sprinkled powdered garlic and Italian seasoning on the pallid fingers of dough.
Grieser washed the three heads of romaine lettuce, and Ricci prepared the other salad ingredients, chopping tomatoes and red onion, slicing the chicken breasts into thin strips, cutting up Italian pepperoncinis.
As they worked, I asked about the rest of their day. Some 80 percent of their calls are for “medical aid,” they told me. This was true even before the fire department took over the provision of paramedic service this past July. The other 20 percent of the calls are a mixed bag, according to Ricci. “Some of them are vehicle or grass fires. Some are ringing alarms. Or somebody’s locked their keys in their car with an infant.” Burning buildings might require their attention only three or four times a month, he said.
When no calls come, the firefighters still stay busy, they claim. They take classes, conduct fire inspections, oversee weed abatement. “It’s not the typical 20, 30 years ago, where we sat around playing checkers and waiting for calls to come in,” Ricci stated.
He tasted the salad dressing he was preparing and frowned at it. “I still haven’t quite got it perfected,” he explained. “In a couple of places, I’ve even asked if they could tell me what was in their Greek salad dressing, and they wouldn’t.”
“This looks like something that I would pay for in a restaurant!” Grieser exclaimed over the final assembly. “I’d be really stoked if I ordered this.” It tasted good too. The tender chicken strips hinted of the garlic and soy sauce with which Ricci had coated them before baking. They mingled in my mouth with the hot and sour crunch of the peppers and the chunks of salty feta cheese.
No television or radio competed with the meal for attention. This prompted a comment from a captain named Bob, who was filling in that day at the station. “It’s interesting to notice which crews watch TV when they eat, as opposed to the ones that turn it off. There’s a much different atmosphere.” Without the TV, Bob ventured, “There’s more socialization. A lot takes place here at the table, at lunch and dinner. I don’t get to see Steve that much; it’s nice to catch up on what’s going on in his life.”
“We’re a family,” Ricci agreed. “And that’s kind of the way it’s been for 100 years. It’s a big family. You work with people, especially 24 hours at a time, and you get to know them. They know some of your personal life — that I have a baby coming soon. That maybe you’re going surfing the next day or up to Yosemite for a week in August. Things like that.”
Closest of all, Ricci said, are the people with whom you go through the fire academy. “They tend to be your best friends for life. There’s three or four guys that I came on with, and we’re still best friends now. We’ve experienced the same things.” Ricci added that he joined the department at the age of 19, and the others at the table almost gasped in envy. “I’m very fortunate,” the engineer acknowledged. “I thank my stars every day. I can honestly say this is the best job in the world. Maybe we’re not making what Michael Jordan makes. But coming to work every day, I still love it.”
“If we’re off a few days, I can’t wait to get to work,” Bob concurred.
The two veterans indicated that the keenest stresses of the job are not what people might imagine — the risk of getting burned up in some hellish conflagration. Instead, “The least enticing thing about the job is getting up at night and losing sleep,” in Ricci’s view. For five years, he worked at Station 17, the city’s busiest, and there “it wasn’t atypical to get up two, three, four times after midnight. That can wear on you. I noticed myself after a period of time picking up colds. Your resistance gets down.”
“Most of the time the job does not seem stressful,” Bob said. “But it’s there, underlying... when you go on certain calls. Let’s say we were to get a call now for an infant not breathing. That would be very stressful to us.” But after coming back from a call that’s particularly gruesome, “We all talk about it. And that helps....”
Having worked in both the restaurant and fire-fighting fields, “I tell you what; I’m much happier being a firefighter,” Ricci said. Running a restaurant takes daunting amounts of time. “It’s really a long day. You have to work holidays.”
At Station 20, about a block from the Sports Arena, Dave Pilkerton was emphatic in his agreement with that judgment. “Some of those professional cooks — they’re busy all the time.”
People call Pilkerton “Pinky,” and it’s a perfect nickname, partly because it’s so incongruous for such a hulk as he. His body could be the model for a comic book superhero: flat belly, huge chest, sinewy forearms. But his skin is a startling shade of pink, and the color clashes with that of his hair, a hue somewhere between carrot-orange and bronze. His cheeks are even pinker.
Pilkerton has been a firefighter for 9 of his 30 years, and when I met him, he’d spent 6 years at Station 20. It sits across the street from the Taco Bell on Midway at Kemper. Separated from Midway by a chain-link fence and a large parking lot, the building is a cream-colored box with an airy front office for the two captains. The kitchen that lies just beyond is-almost stylish. Four-by-four tiles in gray, white, and slate blue cover the floor, and the Formica cabinets match the blue shade. A large work island contains double sinks, a dishwasher, and lots of counter space. The Wolf stove looks new.
When I walked in at four one afternoon, a low flame burned beneath a huge cast-iron pot filled with thick red sauce. After lunch that day, Pilkerton had created it from six cans of tomatoes processed in various forms as well as a handful of spices. “You have to start it ahead in order for all the seasoning to take over,” he said. The sauce would go on his meatball sandwiches. “I used to make them all the time, but I haven’t done them in a while, and the guys all complained. They’re relatively easy to make, and they’re filling, and they’re good.” He also showed off a pot of a chunky caramel-colored slurry—homemade applesauce perfumed with cinnamon.
At Station 20, declared Pilkerton, “Every person here is a real good cook.” He estimated, though, that he does 60 to 80 percent of the meal preparation for his crew. “But I don’t mind cooking. I like it. It’s a talent I’ve got, and it gives the other crew members a taste of different types of food and gives them some variety. Once I go to another station, they won’t have my cooking again. So they better use the resources while they’ve got ’em.” He wasn’t boasting. Pilkerton seems to be one of those people with so much good-natured energy that it must feel good to him to burn off some of it in the kitchen.
Donning a brown vinyl apron, he bustled to one of the counters and sliced open five one-pound packages of Zacky Farms ground turkey, ejecting the meat into a stainless steel bowl 18 inches in diameter. It would make enough meatballs to serve 8 to 42 hungry people, he declared. “I always cook extra. That’s something I do at home — cook more than enough. My wife thinks I’m cooking for 8 people, and there are just 4 of us. But when I go to work, she has food left over. All she has to do is nuke it.” He added that his wife “didn’t come from a family that cooked a lot. Her father was in the military, so they were always on the bounce.”
Pilkerton, in contrast, grew up in La Mesa, where “my mom cooked a lot of roasts. We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese — stuff like that. And my mom is an excellent baker. So with these guys [his fellow firefighters), for their birthdays I make birthday cakes.”
His father was a fireman who, naturally, also cooked. But Pilkerton says he learned the most about cooking from working at Leonardo’s, the restaurant owned by Steve Ricci’s uncle. Pilkerton didn’t know Ricci then. When Pilkerton was 15, he got a job there, starting as a busboy. “I moved up to waiter and cook. I worked all the time. I’d get off school at 1:45 and be at work at 3:30. The first hour you’re prepping — making the salads and getting everything ready.”
The ring of a telephone interrupted his reminiscence. After a brief, cheery conversation, he explained that the call had been from a fellow firefighter wanting to know if Pilkerton had heard anything about a promotion to engineer that both were seeking. “I think they interviewed about 130 people for 42 positions,” he told me. Some 225 had taken the written exams, which covered driving and operating the apparatus, along with other technical issues. Expecting word at any moment, all the hopefuls were in suspense.
To the ground turkey, Pilkerton added a large onion, finely chopped. He also poured in some Progresso Italian-seasoned bread crumbs — maybe 12 ounces’ worth, he guessed. Then he cracked six eggs and plunged his big freckled hands into the gooey assemblage, kneading it into a homogenous paste.
There were four children in his family, including two other boys, he continued his story. But he was the only son to become a firefighter. “My first plan was to be a highway patrolman. But you had to be 21 to take the exam.” An 18-year-old could take the fire department’s test, so Pilkerton did, but he didn’t win admission to the fire academy. Instead, he spent two years taking courses in fire fighting at Miramar College, and he finally won in a lottery a chance to go through the academy as a so-called open-enrollment student. “You’re treated just like one of the recruits,” Pilkerton explained, “but you’re not paid, and you’re not guaranteed a job once you graduate.” He finished highest in his class but had to go back to working at Leonardo’s until he was hired in April of 1988.
Bounding to a cabinet, Pilkerton pulled out an oversized cookie sheet and greased it with canola oil. Then he shaped the meat into patties the size of tennis balls. It took him less than five minutes to line up 45 of these in neat rows on the pan, which he placed in the 400-degree oven. They would bake for about 20 minutes, then he would add them to the simmering tomato sauce.
What other dishes are his specialties? “Seafood fettucine. Eggplant Parmesan. Meat loaf. Philadelphia steak sandwiches. Pizza!” The last thought prompted Pilkerton to rinse his hands and dash from the room, returning a moment later with a photo. It showed him with a huge round of pizza dough suspended in air over his head. “I learned that at the restaurant” he said with a grin. “They used to call me Pizza Man when I first started in the department.”
He doesn’t often add a new recipe, but he would at this meal. “I ate this Oriental chicken salad at a potluck with some friends. I said I liked it, and they told me how to make it, so I’m making the cabbage salad tonight, without the chicken.”
“Is it time to eat yet?” a co-worker ribbed him, striding through the kitchen.
“There’s a Taco Bell right across the street,” Pilkerton pointed out.
It didn’t take long to pull the meal together. For the salad, he chopped a head of cabbage and a bunch of green onions, then tossed in a half dozen ingredients for the dressing. He extracted the golden, sizzling meatballs from the oven, drained the grease, and transferred the meat into the thickened marinara sauce. He took a few minutes to cut some bell peppers and onions into rings and sauté them with some margarine and crushed garlic. Then he split French rolls and adorned them with meatballs, sauce, sautéed vegetables, and grated mozzarella cheese. As he returned these to the oven to melt the cheese, Pilkerton told me that almost no one can eat two of the sandwiches. “Once I had a partner who bet me that he could. And he did. But he didn’t feel too comfortable afterwards.”
At 5:38 p.m., Pilkerton strode to an intercom at the far end of the kitchen, punched a button, and bellowed, “Chow’s on. Let’s go!” Men materialized, grabbing plates bearing the sandwiches, plunking themselves down at the long dining table. They helped themselves to the cabbage salad and the applesauce and some cucumbers that Pilkerton had marinated earlier that afternoon. The meat-ball sandwich filled my stomach quickly and filled my mouth with flavors as familiar as my own kitchen: canned tomato sauce, melted mozzarella cheese, browned meatballs.
I asked this group how busy their station is. “We’re probably a little busier than the norm,” the captain replied. “We average about six runs a day. July 4 we average about 17.... It’s all the traffic and stupid things, and you have people fall in fire rings.” The area covered by Station 20 provides a nice mix of activity, he added. “We’ve got Ski Beach. We’ve got the high rises. We’ve got the marinas. We’ve got the grass in the valley. We’ve got a little industrial.”
And structure fires? In May they had six, the men told me. In the six months before that there were none. “Things have changed in the fire service,” one veteran declared. “In the older days, they didn’t have all the smoke detectors and all the inspections, and we used to have structure fires all the time. But now they’ve got better detectors, better sprinkler systems and monitors. Now when we go, it’s usually an incipient fire, some small thing you can put out with an extinguisher.... We’ve actually worked our way out of the position of fire fighting.”
The man next to him chimed in. “When we first came on, we had all the hotels downtown, and they hadn’t been upgraded. A lot of the people that now you might see in the street—they’d be buying rooms, and they’d get drunk and set their rooms on fire. We’d have two, three hotel fires a night. Sometimes it was some furniture that you had to put out. Usually it was a mattress that you had to roll up and take downstairs. We always carried a piece of rope in our pocket to hog-tie the mattress. You’d roll it up real tight and tie it up, and then you’d take it down into the street, and the engineer would soak it through.”
“The biggest deal is, our job is to prevent fires,” said the man next to me. “We’re doing a damn good job of that.” He laughed hard.
Talk turned to hazardous materials, and several of the men at the table rolled their eyes. “Everything’s hazardous materials in this country anymore,” one said. “Everything from hairspray to paint.” If someone gets killed and bleeds in the street, the blood can be considered a hazardous material.
“Or people will go to a parking lot and change their oil and leave it sitting there in a plastic tub. You know what it is,” another said, “but you can’t just treat it like it’s oil.”
Firefighters are called in to dispose of such things, “and you’re usually there for hours and hours and hours,” the first man said. “The haz-mat side of this country has gone stupid. It was way far where we were hurting the environment, but the pendulum has swung the other way, and it’s kind of gone stupid. Eventually it’ll come back to an even keel.”
This man sounded less sanguine about the medical emergency runs handled by the department. “It remains to be seen exactly how long our rigs are going to last, running the wheels off them like we do. It’s a big expense. That’s why money’s so tight.” Unlike the police department, the firefighters don’t write tickets, he pointed out. “We’re a negative drain on the city budget. So it’s tough to get the money. The police department has the most politics, and they get the lion’s share of the money.”
“Different areas are different,” a man on the other side of the table chipped in. “The higher the income level, it seems, the less runs a company has. Higher-class people, if they stub their toe, instead of calling 911, they get in a car and get to the hospital themselves. They save 911 for emergencies. But companies in Southeast San Diego, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro — they get 15,20,30 calls a shift. And 90 percent of them are nothing. They’re worthless. They’ve got cars parked in the driveway, and when you say, ‘Why didn’t you just get in it and go to the doctor?’ they say, ‘Oh no. You take me.’ They’re not paying for it. You and I do.”
Pilkerton didn’t join in this bitter talk. He just ate and smiled with pleasure when someone mentioned how good the dinner tasted. He seemed like too jolly a fellow to spend much time griping about anything. Or maybe he was distracted by the imminent promotion announcements. The phone kept ringing.
Later, I called and asked what had happened. He had gotten the new job, and he sounded ebullient. Because of his promotion, he wasn’t assigned full-time to Station 20 anymore; instead, he was filling in all over the city. But he was still cooking wherever he went, Pilkerton assured me. “That’s never gonna change.”
On Thanksgiving, Pilkerton will be at a big family get-together, and if he doesn’t cook the turkey, he said, he’ll bake the pies or make the stuffing. He always makes at least one dish. But he added that the fire-fighting crews on duty that day will do much the same thing. They’ll invite friends and family to the stations for dinner. Sometimes they set up long tables in the equipment bays. Everyone pitches in to help.
I thought of my own house, where my husband’s parents always join the four of us for the traditional meal. My husband cooks the turkey and stuffing, and my mother-in-law brings a pumpkin and a mince pie that she makes from scratch. I do some of the side dishes: homemade rolls and maybe Waldorf salad or cranberry chutney. On no occasion during the year is cooking more of a pleasure for me, in part because the work is communal, partly because, for once, we have the time to do it. We don’t resent ail the steps required to put together a meal but rather go about them, like the firefighters, with willing hearts.