Firehouses are not exactly temples of cuisine. The traditional firehouse method of telling when the spaghetti is done, for instance, is to toss a piece on the ceiling. If the spaghetti sticks, the pasta is done. Among the tips firehouse cooks pass along is one on how to hide leftovers from prowling eaters: Wrap the food in an old brussels sprouts package and nobody will go near it.
Nonetheless, there are times when firehouse food transcends its basic function, fuel for the troops, and becomes a feast.
That was the case on a recent Thursday night when I dined on a fillet of baked catfish, Spanish rice, a medley of vegetables and a garden salad. I ate with the cook, Karl J. Zimmerman, and with about 15 other firefighters who work the "C" shift at the John F. Steadman Firehouse, a building that wraps around the landmark Bromo-Seltzer Tower in downtown Baltimore. This was a "cookin' house," a place where one shift of firefighters shares the expense and the work of cooking a common meal in the firehouse kitchen.
Like most folks, firefighters prefer to sit down and eat. But when a call comes in -- for a fire, for a chemical spill, for someone trapped in a car wreck or stuck in an elevator -- the diners bolt from the table.
The other night, right in the middle of the baked catfish, a radio in the dining room crackled with word of a fire in the 700 block of Dolphin St. Before you could say "pass the lemon pepper," three-quarters of the diners were sliding down brass poles and charging toward Dolphin Street. A handful of men assigned to the rescue unit, including Zimmerman, stayed behind. If a second alarm for the fire had sounded, they, too, would have rushed out. But for the time being they wrapped their colleagues' half-finished meals in plastic wrap and stored the food in the fridge.
"All firefighters can cook a little . . . just as a matter of survival," said Herman Williams Jr., who is known around Baltimore both as Baltimore City fire chief and as the maker of a mean turkey roll.
An avid cook, Chief Williams not only hands out awards at Fire Department ceremonies, he sometimes brings the food, usually his turkey roll. He cooks for his family, too. And sometimes, his son, talk-show host Montel Williams, calls and asks his dad for cooking advice. "When I retire," Chief Williams said, "maybe I'll open a restaurant and call it Herman's Firehouse Cooking."
While some of the fixings for firehouse dishes come from the grocery store, others come from the wild. Every so often, for instance, the guys at another cooking house in downtown Baltimore, the Old Town firehouse, will have blackened dolphin. The dolphin fish, also called mahi-mahi, is different from the mammal most of us know as Flipper. In this case, it is reeled in by firefighters on fishing expeditions in the Atlantic Ocean.
"When it is blackened-dolphin night, everybody comes in," said Charlie Rosenberger. Rosenberger, along with Ron Mosteller and Battalion Chief Bill Martin, handles most of the cooking duties on the B shift at Old Town. The firehouse work schedule is divided among four shifts -- A, B, C and D. Each shift is responsible for its own meals. A collection is taken up, somebody cooks, somebody cleans up.
"All our meals are $5 a man," Rosenberger said. "When we have ham and cabbage the ingredients don't cost that much, but you still put five bucks in the kitty. That way when we have stuffed flounder, it still costs only five bucks. The kitty holds steady."
Regardless of who cooks it, most firehouse food seems to come in big portions, carries a low price tag, and generates loud, sometimes humorous receptions from the diners.
New York firefighter John Sineno, who wrote "The Firefighter's Cookbook" in 1986, said that a recipe that is supposed to serve eight average eaters feeds about three firefighters.
Another New York firehouse chef, Joseph T. Bonnano Jr., said bluntly: "Firefighters are cheap." Bonnano, whose brother and father are also New York firefighters, said any firehouse meal that costs more than $5 a man is considered wildly extravagant. Bonnano is putting the finishing touches on "The Healthy Firehouse Cookbook," a book he said will have low-cost and low-fat recipes.
Recently, recipes of firehouse fare made by Sineno and Bonnano, as well as by firehouse cooks in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco, were published in a brochure put out by the USA Rice Council. The brochure (free by mail; send a self-addressed stamped envelope to USA Rice Council, Great Firehouse Chefs, P.O. Box 740121, Houston, Texas 77274) also gives examples of firehouse humor. It tells, for instance, of what happened when guys in a Philadelphia firehouse were served a supper of swordfish and rice. They began calling for ketchup.
Back to that night at Baltimore's Steadman firehouse: The men returned from the fire on Dolphin Street and finished off their supper. Except for a smudge mark on the face of Lt. Dominic Fiaschetti, the result of a tumble at the smoldering rowhouse, there was little evidence of what had interrupted the meal. The catfish was reheated and the mood seemed best summed up by a remark firefighter Ted Tawney made earlier in the evening. "The microwave," he said, "is the fireman's friend."