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.”