After years of lugging a cliche around in the back of your mind, you wind up with a choice. You can accept the truth of it, and be no worse off. Or you can finagle a way to, ah, investigate.
So do firefighters really cook as well as we're told?
Thanks to your wife, you finally have a chance to put this old wheeze to the test. It begins at a "casino night" fund-raiser for the South Bay Sunrise Rotary Club. At a mock horse race, she picks a 70-to-1 longshot and, ding-dong, you are the happy winner of dinner for four at -- and let's give these guys credit, please -- the very best the LAFD has to offer, Station 112.
"Great," says Battalion Chief Louis A. Roupoli. "You won't be disappointed."
The Los Angeles Fire Department's Marine Task Force Station 112 in San Pedro is distinctive for several reasons. One of them is that it's home to "the most powerful fireboat in the world," about which we will learn more. Also, the fire station was built recently in one of those fortunate interludes between civic budget crises, so that you will be eating from a Wolf industrial stove in a glass-fronted mess hall with a waterfront view. For another thing, crewing on a harbor fireboat is highly desirable duty. The politics of seniority thus assures that there won't be any rookies in the kitchen.
"Nobody's learning here," you are advised.
A few introductory words about the cliche of firefighters and food: Thumb through books written on the subject and you realize how deeply rooted this idea is in our culture. In the comfortable small-town imagery of an emerging nation a century ago, the volunteer fire hall was host to family-style community feasts on Sunday. Later, with the rise of professional firefighters, these kitchens became the home away from home for crews who stood 24-hour shifts.
Still, there are reasons to wonder. The patois of the firehouse cook is full of words like "grub" and "no nonsense" and "all-American." How many sins of the ordinary can be camouflaged in such language?
So you inquire: Chief, what's on the menu?
"We'll do something with a marinara sauce," Roupoli replies, blithely.
He offers a context: His family settled in San Pedro four generations ago at the beginning of a sizable migration of Italians to the north side of the Los Angeles harbor. The Roupoli name threads its way through the history of San Pedro and still retains its ethnic pride. So naturally, dinner will be pasta.
A turn at the stove
If you happen to rub shoulders with the foodie crowd, however, marinara sauce conjures up dubious thoughts: Say, supper at the Cleavers' house with Wally and the Beav.
So you turn up the pressure a little. You ask, will this dinner hold up to scrutiny of a larger audience?
"It's all in the sauce," Roupoli replies, unfazed.
As happens, this Sunday's rotation -- every firefighter takes a turn at the stove -- has John Donato cooking. An 18-year veteran of the LAFD, Donato is also a native of San Pedro's Italian American community. He recalls growing up with the ritual gathering of extended family on Sundays for pasta, everybody helping out. It was here that a young boy began to understand the significance of food to the cohesiveness of a clan.
A good sign: The door to station 112 opens and you are enveloped in the aroma of garlic, fresh basil, sweet onions, crushed tomatoes and meat put to the heat. Mind you, this is a large building. It encases a 105-foot, 200-ton fireboat, a pumper engine, a foam tender truck, a paramedic ambulance, a handball court, a dormitory -- and the kitchen is at the far end from the front door. Donato has filled a quarter-block of San Pedro waterfront with the welcoming smells of boyhood Sundays.
The rite commenced the same as always. The chop-chop-sizzle of diced onions, minced garlic, ripe olive oil and flame is to comfort food what the Barcalounger is to grandpa's tired back -- the beginning of a promise of better things to come.
Donato holds a stance in front of the stove, but his movements are nonchalant, automatic. His recipe requires thought only in recounting, not in execution. He is cooking with his nose.
He jabs a spoon into the liquid, which is a darker shade of red than the fireboat down the hall. But the spoon won't go to the bottom. Something here isn't familiar.
At the center of Donato's simmering sauce is a boneless beef shoulder roast the size of a pumpkin. Yes, there is a bucketful of Roupoli's Parmesan meatballs in there too, garnished with a piglet's worth of garlic sausages from a local Italian butcher. But the roast, dimpled with still more garlic, commands the pot.
The sauce went on at midday. It will simmer all afternoon over the gentlest of flame, barely enough to raise lethargic bubbles. Simultaneously, meats are allowed to marinate and braise. The mingling of so many juices cannot be hurried, and why would it?
Donato is cooking with his eyes now. Flavors concentrate and mellow as the sauce thickens. He gauges its strength from dribbles off his stirring spoon.