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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

There Was No Joy in Fonduing It

June 12, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

In the village of 9,000 where I grew up, the police and fire departments were side by side. It was a sleepy little place. The police chief's name was Porky.

We never had much crime. A town drunk would get locked up from time to time, but that was about it.

There was only one jail cell, or maybe two, I forget.

As for fires, I can't remember many of consequence. We'd see smoke now and then, but usually it would turn out to be somebody burning leaves.

For years, I never saw our firefighters in action except at summer carnivals. They would play a game called "water ball" against fellow firemen--I recall no women then--from neighboring towns. A ball would hang from a wire. The object was to aim hoses at it and out-squirt the opponents.

Our firemen were volunteers. I suppose they knew what they were doing. They squirted the ball pretty well.

One day, though, an actual fire did break out.

I don't remember how it began, but I do remember where. It began at the jail.

Firetrucks swung into action. Quickly they were driven from the firehouse, so they wouldn't catch fire. (Good plan.)

The cops also acted swiftly. They evacuated the jail, grabbing guns and documents. Squad cars were immediately moved a safe distance away.

Thanks to such sharp reflexes, our cops and firemen were able to save practically everything in the station. Oh, except for one thing everybody forgot.

The drunk in the cell.

*

I haven't had a lot of experience with fires, although I swear on a Bible, this was a true story. The prisoner died, the town got sued and I seem to recall Porky wondering how everybody could have forgotten poor ol' Dale, or whatever his name was.

In years to come, I did see my share of fires. I covered a couple as a reporter, and watched a couple as a gawker.

But I was never actually in one.

Until last Sunday.

It was my first time inside a burning kitchen. My first time almost being Sunday brunch.

I have friends from Huntington Beach who are among the last living Americans who fondue. It was fashionable to fondue in the 1970s, and a lot of us got fondue pots for Christmas gifts. But I haven't used a fondue pot since I wore a leisure suit, both of which can be highly flammable.

To fondue, in case you never have, is to dip cubes of meat, fish or vegetables into a pot of simmering oil. It's kind of like toasting a marshmallow, which is also something we did back then, don't ask why.

I never really enjoyed oil-boiled meat or crisp marshmallows, but hey, we were starved for entertainment.

For months, my Orange County friends invited me to do fondue. I kept putting it off, secretly thinking that if God had meant men and women to cook food in boiling oil, He never would have invented Burger King.

Anyway, Sunday was fondue day.

There I was, sitting there by the stove, enjoying a pleasant afternoon, when steam began to escape from a pot on the range. (I should interject at this point that my firsthand knowledge of cooking fondue is tantamount to Martha Stewart's firsthand knowledge of fighting kung fu.)

With our chef out of the room for a moment, his wife was closest to the pot. She lifted the lid.

Flames shot toward the ceiling.

The entire kitchen was ablaze within seconds. A curtain, the cabinets, the appliances, you name it. The smoke was black and thick. I haven't coughed that way since the last time I sat inside any bar in Europe.

We spent the next few minutes scrambling to save everything, including a dog. I don't know if you have ever been in a burning kitchen, aiming a garden hose at a burning microwave oven, but let me assure you, it was a first for me.

The kitchen was destroyed.

First time I nearly fondued a house.

*

I have come to several conclusions since Sunday's adventure.

One is that I am thinking a lot about tossed salad and sushi, and how neither requires fire to cook. I see a lot of salad and sushi in my future.

Furthermore, I now appreciate firefighters more than ever before. Theirs is the only occupation no one makes fun of, and now I know why.

Finally, I plan to go right out now and buy a fire extinguisher. That's what happens when you almost become an extinguishee.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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