Out of the Fire and
Into the Frying Pan

Front-burner delicacies from the fire station


Fire station food sounds like manly fare, doesn't it? One expects to see eggs, sausage, toast, hash browns, bacon, pancakes and syrup, all at one sitting. These smoke-eaters are meat-and-potatoes kinda guys, right?

So how come the captain at Dallas Station No. 41 serves his men a crabmeat and wilted-spinach crepe?

It just goes to show that there's some hot cooking going on at Dallas fire stations. About 10 firefighters sit down to three or more meals during each 24-hour shift at 52 stations in Dallas. With numbers like that, there has to be something for practically every taste.

Other numbers show heart attacks are the leading cause of death among firefighters, so the Dallas Fire Department encourages its personnel to maintain proper weight and recommends a daily physical fitness program.

"We used to fix what I call the 'triple bypass breakfast,'" says Capt. Marc Reinertson, maker of the aforementioned crepe. "Now we're checking our cholesterol levels, and I'm cutting down on salt and fats when I cook.

"We do enough bad things to our health out here -- like inhaling smoke -- that we don't need to compound it by eating poorly," he says.

Despite the concern about fat, sodium and cholesterol, old habits and palates are hard to change. Says Capt. Steve Bass of Station No. 15 in Oak Cliff: "People are getting more conscious of what they eat, I think, but there's still plenty of time for snacking. We all eat like Americans."

Station No. 41
Marc Reinertson grew up in a family where there was no stigma about boys learning to cook. So he did, starting at age 9. Since then, he has become a State Fair ribbon winner in several categories and has seen his share of chili cookoffs.

(A Reinertson Kitchen Tip: While beer is a good meat tenderizer, never use it in competition chili. After it sits around for a while waiting to be judged, the chili takes on "the smell and flavor of the backroom of an old beer hall.")

Reinertson has been with the fire department for 22 years, and these days, he's ecstatic about being one of the cooks for Station No. 41 on Royal Lane near Preston Road. "There's Hampton's Seafood Market, and Pasta Plus, and Hickory Farms in the shopping centers here. You can make up great meals with the $5 per shift each man pays in." Voila! Crabmeat crepe, no problem.

He's also a fan of cookbooks, reading and appearing in them. One word of warning about any Reinertson recipe. "In my family, we have a saying: 'This must be a good recipe; it has sour cream in it.'" His Pheasant and Wild Rice Casserole is no exception.

Station No. 15
"Crabmeat crepes? Yeah, that's typical firehouse food. We had 'em just a coupla shifts ago, right, Joe?"

Welcome to the Station No. 15 A-Shift Comedy Club. The best show's in the kitchen, where at least five of the men on duty can cook, and the work island looks out onto several rows of tables and benches: perfect audience seating.

For your dining pleasure today, Capt. Steve Bass and Second Driver Joe Hinojosa have commandeered the kitchen, seasoning their fideo and pinto beans with a steady stream of quips and asides.

Hinojosa learned this Fideo recipe from "ol' Mom in San Antonio," he claims. "Took me a while to learn how to make it. I messed up a lot of pots and pans before I got it down."

Bass adds, "Messed up a lot of firemen, too. We have people on pension because of his cooking." Wink, wink. Bass is another chili cook-off veteran. He claims he and his wife had to quit the circuit because their 19-month-old "doesn't understand the cook-off routine." The pinto beans Bass will cook today are flavored with ham, tomatoes, jalepenos, onions, bell pepper and chili powder.

With five cooks, it sounds as if these guys eat OK. "OK?" deadpans firefighter Busby, who's not cooking. He pats his stomach. "Look at us!"

Station No. 46
There's a lovely yard sale taking place next door to Station No. 46 in South Oak Cliff, but the firefighters on the B Shift are too busy to peruse the goods. Today's luncheon menu features homemade hamburgers, one of the lighter entrees in the repertoire of Pvt. Chuck Allison.

He's a real fire station-trained cook who began 15 years ago, because "someone's got to cook and no one else wanted to do it. I guess they like my cooking OK."

What modesty. His culinary reputation extends at least as far Station No. 14 at Hampton and Polk, where the men named Allison the best cook in the whole Dallas Fire Department. The kicker to this story is that one of the firefighters at Station No. 14 is a former chef of the Fairmont Hotel, who doesn't cook on duty, perhaps in deference to station-trained cooks such as Allison.

"The time we eat is the time for everybody to get together," Allison notes. "When everybody sits down together, it's more of a family-type atmosphere, the camaraderie's better."

Allison prefers to stick to basics ("if they don't like your cooking you get voted out!"), such as his Chicken Supreme with a green salad and a vegetable to balance the meal. "Everybody's trying to lose some weight," he says.

"Of course, it's hard to get away from the potatoes and the fried foods. They may send us out a program from downtown if we don't watch ourselves," he says, grinning.

These recipes produce dishes are that excellent for reheating, because firefighters often go on call midway through a meal and have to warm up the meal to finish it. Also, the large portions can be split among pans and frozen for use when time is in short supply. Anyone wanting more firefighters' recipes has a bit of digging in store. The last department cookbook (circa 1975) is long out of print, with no plans in sight for a new editions.

But Marc Reinertson has an idea. "We need to have a department cook-off," he says enthusiastically. "They had one in New York, and the winners made national TV. They got to go on Donahue!"

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