Jerry Ford is about to take his chicken from the oven at Fire Station 8 in Northeast Baltimore when he runs into a problem unique to Fire Department cooks. An alarm sounds in the station and he has to drop everything and take off with Engine 43, which is stationed at the firehouse with Medic Unit 18.
Ford doesn't exactly drop anything. He turns down the heat on his stove, leaves his chicken in the oven and hopes for the best.
"It happens quite often," he says. "There were a couple of dinners we had to start and stop so many times it was 10 o'clock at night by the time we got down to eat."
Though the cuisine often takes a back seat to emergencies, today's firehouse cooks share in a time-honored tradition. Because their shifts can be long, firefighters become a kind of family, and when there's actually time to eat, the heat is on the cook to deliver a meal everybody will like.
"You think the `Iron Chef' has a little pressure on them?" asks Joseph T. Bonanno Jr., who cooked for his peers during 21 years with the New York City Fire Department and has written two cookbooks. "Try cooking for 11 people who later that night might be running into a burning building."
Firehouse cooks might be chosen by default - with a supervisor saying, "You're the cook tonight" - or by design, says Bonanno, who has competed in firehouse cooking contests around the country. "I found in the biggest cities, the firefighter who cooks usually is a person who takes really great pride in it," he says.
The job requires having a tough skin as a cook and walking the line between predictable old favorites and new cuisine.
Ford, the Baltimore firefighter, suggests the impetus for being a cook - and maybe a fireman - comes from his mother, with whom he still lives. His mother, Margaret Cornwell Ford, "had about three or four uncles in the Fire Department."
"Most of my recipes are handed down from my mom, who got them from my great-grandmother," he says. He still consults his mother about cooking. "I made a phone call today to make sure I was putting the right amount of vinegar in the cucumbers."
John Gill, a firefighter assigned to Engine 44, cooks at the firehouse on Upland Road in Roland Park. Gill says his mother, too, taught him how to cook.
"She told me the way I eat, if I don't want to starve to death, I better learn how to cook," Gill says.
He's been cooking at Fire Station 5 since he arrived there 10 years ago. He's been in the Fire Department 26 years. He liked cooking at the old 111 Station at North and Mount Royal avenues until it was closed.
Gill's quite conscious of eating and cooking healthful food. So is Ford, and most Fire Department cooks these days.
"You have to be," Gill says. His colleagues, he says, "love it. I mean the only time they get on me about it is when I use too much garlic. I love it. I put garlic in everything."
He made tossed salad along with macaroni-and-tuna salad to go with a going-away meal for Rudy Leonard, a firefighter-paramedic with Truck 25, who's been called up with a National Guard team going to Afghanistan.
Dave Carter, from Truck 25, nominates Gill as the "marinate master."
"He never marinates anything the same way twice," Carter says. "You have pork chops one week, the next week they're not going to be exactly the same. But they're going to be delicious."
Ford gets his accolades from the guys at Fire Station 8. Before his cooking was interrupted, he carefully cleaned chicken breasts and trimmed off the fat and loose odds and ends. He dipped the breasts in flour seasoned with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
"Kosher salt or sea salt tend to have more flavors," he says, as he dropped four pieces of chicken into a frying pan.
He got them on sale at a Mars supermarket nearby on Northern Parkway. He's a careful shopper and cook.
"Only a couple minutes in the fry pan, then they'll go into the oven."
He mixed sour cream and sugar and vinegar for a sauce for his cucumber salad. Another firefighter had already slowly and neatly peeled his cucumbers.
"There's a little bit of sourness already in the sour cream," Ford says. "Again, I guess that's one of the things my grandmother said to do. It's sweet and tart."
He tasted his cucumber sauce. "I'm really happy with this," he says.
He'll use 1 1/2 pounds of "light and fluffy" egg noodles to go with his chicken breasts. "The noodles only take about nine minutes," he says. "All noodles are pretty quick."
Because of the constant possibility they'll be called away, firehouse cooks look for dishes - like the noodles - that are either quick to prepare or come together so slowly that they're amenable to sitting on the stove or in the oven.