Mid-March is nearly here. The significance of that date? My 1 year since graduating fire academy a.k.a. The rookie year.
To backpedal for a moment … Fire academy is 6.5 months; 6AM-4PM M-F crash course of 13 certifications ranging from awareness-level courses (i.e. trench rescue) to an operations-level courses (i.e. firefighter II). It’s para-military in the sense that there’s marching, motivational speeches while holding the push-up position, and lots of team building opportunities involving ~200 lb logs. It’s somehow one of the best yet hardest experiences of my life and I’d do it again in a heartbeat to earn this job.
If you make it to graduation day, you’re released to the field and start shift work. 24 hours on. 48 hours off. First day at the new fire house involves carrying 2 duffle bags with 50 lbs of gear in each and a 20-gallon storage bin for bedding and spare uniforms. Your job title goes from Trainee to Rookie. Instead of bright green Trainee shirts, you get the traditional navy blue t-shirt that proudly bears the logo of the fire department you worked so hard to earn. However, once your gear is out, they slap on two big shiny “R’s” on your fire helmet. That way on the fire scene when they see that big red “R” everyone else knows to look out for you. The start of your rookie year has begun.
You, the rookie, meet the rest of your shift mates (who have already looked you up and probably heard a few rumors about you) and get a tour of the fire house. Afterwards, you learn the house rules and their expectations as a rookie. Being a rookie means you’re primarily in charge of house chores, keep the coffee fresh, always helping out with daily checks, and get involved with projects around the house. The point of this seemingly strange rule is to immerse yourself into the inner circle of your shift-mates and pick up things you didn’t learn during academy (which is quite frankly, a lot). Keep in mind, your shift mates have been seeing each other every 3 days for 24 hours, having tons of bonding time, inside jokes, and stories to share. The rookie, on the other hand, is the new guy or gal. You have to earn their trust and find your place.
Throughout Rookie year, I’ve had to prove my worth and earn my shift-mates trust. I’ve been spontaneously quizzed, lead training drills, and been “volunteered” for tasks. A few examples. When we had our annual review of confined space training, they needed one person to go through the 2 foot wide tunnel while in gear. “Oh hey the rookie is here, she wants to go!” Declares the senior man on our shift. So into the tunnel I go (good thing I’m small). Another time, I accidentally called the station’s captain by her first name, so on her birthday later that year, I was volunteered to sing “Happy birthday” to her in front of the whole crew. I also have yet to sit on the couch and watch TV. I have viewed the TV twice in my whole year - once to watch a documentary (was told to) and another to watch a series of training videos. Both times I sat on a nearby chair. The couch isn’t for rookies.
Another time-honored tradition in the fire service is the rookie dinner. This happens near the end of rookie year, where the rookie cooks up a nice meal for their shift. Like many odd things we do, there is symbolism behind it. The rookie dinner is meant as a way to say “thank you” to your shift. They’ve had to take time to show you the ropes, deal with your mistakes (I’ve only broken two things on the fire engine so far), and answer millions (or in my case, billions) of questions. They’ve had to host extra training sessions (mandated by your rookie book) and help prepare you for the 6-month and 1-year exams that are pass-or-get-fired type important. So the least you can do as the rookie, besides not be a knucklehead, is make your shift mates a nice meal.
My shift has a few extra challenges. Most shifts have 6-10 individuals to feed. Mine has 12. On top of that, my shift is very diverse in food preferences. There are several who are gluten-free and/or vegetarian, plus one who is vegan and several more who don’t want pork or fatty meats. Despite all this, we still make meals together every shift and eat together, however it typically takes half of us to cook and prepare everything in a timely manner and usually 2-3 individuals to come up with ideas. For my rookie dinner, however, I’m mostly on my own. For the past month leading up to my rookie dinner, I had been brainstorming ideas with several of my shift mates. I thought about sushi, but I didn’t want to risk bad fish(since they are still on duty). I thought about Pho, since there are plenty of ways to customize your individual bowl to fit your own dietary needs. And I thought about surf-and-turf, but that is one of the most common rookie dinners made. My shift mates have taught me so much and helped me in more ways than just how to be a good firefighter. They’ve helped me learn how to deal with the job-induced anxiety, brought me closer to God, confronted some of my own struggles from abuse in my past, and given me strength to push through all three COVID spikes at the busiest house in the county. Needless to say, I owe them a really good meal.
Enter James May, with his latest cooking show “Oh Cook!”. His first episode, “Asian Fusion” showed a few dishes that were simple enough to make. It grabbed my attention and thought I could make something like that for my dinner. However, there were still 6 more episodes to go and I still had a few weeks before my rookie dinner. The next episode was “Pub Food”, which included delicious vegetarian and meat pies. Had there not been several gluten free individuals, I would have probably done this. The next episode was about pasta. Again, there was the hurdle of gluten free. Yes, I could have made them something separately. However, the individuals that are gluten free or vegan or vegetarian are almost always getting special made food for them at the firehouse. I felt that I should take this opportunity to make something that could include everyone.
Enter the 4th episode, “Curry”. James made two main dishes, lamb curry and red lentil Dahl. There were also several side dishes, such as a mint sauce Rahita and a tomato chutney. He also demonstrated how to make Chapati, a.k.a. Unleavened flat bread, which turns out is amazingly easy. I remember watching the episode, with its wide array of dishes and knowing that I wanted to make this for my dinner. Hubby and I watched the rest of the series to enjoy watching amazingly simple but delicious food being made by a car guy. We also found his cook book and bought it. Luckily the measurements were in both the metric and units systems. All I had to do was double or triple the recipe to feed 12 firefighters.
On the morning of my rookie dinner, I had most of the ingredients packed up. I decided to test out how to make Chapati since I had never made them before. After rolling out a few, hubby walked into the kitchen asking if something was burning. No nothing was unintentionally burning. Just the pan had to be sizzling hot and some of the residual flour was burning off the pan. I had hubby test one out, but he ended up eating 4 more, just to be sure the first one wasn’t a fluke.
By early afternoon, I was at the firehouse ready to start chopping. Unfortunately I neglected to get any pictures (much to my husband’s disappointment) but I had a huge bundle of cilantro to chop, a dozen tomatoes to dice, and about a dozen onions, garlic, and shallots to dice. It was nearly 3 hours of prep work and while my shift mates helped a little, they primarily sat back and watched me work. Plus, they were out running calls (busiest house, remember?). The cook time was roughly 45 minutes, but since the cooking was primarily a 5-10 minute sauté and a 30-minute simmer, almost all the chopping had to be done beforehand. Plus, the three sauces I was making all needed time to refrigerate so I had to make those early as well.
What dishes, you might ask? Well here they are… Lamb curry (my only non-vegan dish), red lentil Dahl, tomato chutney, mint sauce raita, avocado raita, jasmine rice, and freshly cooked Chapati (the only item with gluten). Now I’ve made curry before, I’ve diced things nicely before, and I’ve even hosted major holiday dinners before there was such a thing as size-limited gatherings. But nothing is more nerve-wracking than making food for your shift-mates. Relatives will forgive and forget if you mess up a meal and then politely refrain from asking you to make certain dishes in the future. Firefighters in a much more tough-love fashion won’t let you live something down like that for years (or until the next major screw-up, whichever comes first). I still have firefighters that remember a nickname they came up for me from one incident in 2016. One incident 6 years ago. (In case you’re wondering, it was “BLS Bag” because I used to carry a ton of stuff in my pockets). Pasta night is still unofficially banned from my fire house after the last pasta night that went wrong several years ago (dunno the story, just was told “we don’t do spaghetti nights after Don messed it up”).
I also had one more ace up my sleeve - dessert. The other thing about my shift is, these are all health-conscious folks that won’t buy dessert for our shift dinners. But. If someone happens to bring dessert in, they will gobble it up. I also know that these guys are a huge sucker for cinnamon rolls because every weekend when we make breakfast, there are always cinnamon rolls on the shopping list. Now I’m not a baker, but I happened to find an easy cinnamon swirl cheesecake recipe, and it was simple to adjust the recipe so it was gluten-free. I had my hubby test a slice and he broke his diet by eating half the slice instead of “just one bite”. Nailed it. At least now I knew that even if I blew dinner, I could save the night with a tasty dessert.
While cooking dinner, I was busy juggling the lamb curry, lentil Dahl, and kneading dough for Chapati. One of the vegans happened to be around and I casually asked him to taste the Dahl. The purpose of asking him was twofold - one is that I tend to under-salt things (according to hubby) and second was to test the waters to see how terrible my food is. Our conversation went something like this:
“Hey Dan, can you taste the Dahl? Let me know if he needs more salt?”
“Yeah sure no problem.”
I proceeded to go back to kneading the dough and then realized I needed a second batch. After kneading that second batch, I realized Dan (name changed btw) hasn’t said a word to me.
“Hey Dan how’s that Dahl?”
“Oh, oh yeah it’s good, doesn’t need more salt!” I looked over and Dan has filled up a BOWL of this stuff and has likely been eating it this whole time. Needless to say, after that, the only thing I had to worry about was whether or not there would be enough for everyone.
The rest of the night went as smooth as can be. Crews staggered in (since different units were out running calls throughout dinner time) and ate. Now in the fire house, the kitchen table is the focal point. Conversations of all sorts happen here, ranging from training sessions to farewell speeches to welcome-to-the-jungle rookie embrace the chaos chats. It’s a lively place where the war stories come out as well as the hard lessons. Those of the highest ranks sit at the head. Normally myself and another rookie from my class sit at the opposite end of the table. That night, I got to sit in the middle, amongst them. Luckily, they didn’t make me sit at the head of the table, like they do to the more quiet individuals. The dining area was silent for much of the meal, other than the clatter of forks. The last time the kitchen table was this silent was when we cooked homemade pizza with fresh dough bought from the Italian market.
The cheesecake ended up being the ultimate mic drop. I warned everyone that there was dessert so they should save some room. I don’t think the gluten free folks realized I had made gluten free cheesecake. I had made 6 servings for the couple of gluten-free individuals and they said they’d return my baking tin in the morning after they ate the rest of the cheesecake for breakfast. Guess they weren’t gonna let leftovers go to waste. Oh and all those health conscious individuals? Yeah they had two slices of cake each. One threw on some fresh strawberries and crumbled up some vegan cinnamon cookies to be more “health conscious” over his second slice.
There were only two unhappy individuals by the end of the night. One was my husband, who helped provide the brilliant idea for this dinner and didn’t get to eat any (don’t worry I made him turkey curry and Chapatis the next night).
The other unhappy person was the other rookie from my shift, who still has yet to make his dinner. He’s mad he didn’t think to go first because I set the bar so high and his plan of surf-and-turf isn’t looking so great right now. He also says he “can’t bake for shit”.
To complete this much longer than intended story, my rookie dinner was a huge success. Ironically, it was my shift-mates that introduced me to curry in the first place. Then of all the food demo shows and cooking competitions I’ve watched, my dinner was inspired by a meal presented by car guy James May. But then again, he did defeat Gordon Ramsey in a cook-off once. Sometimes, all it takes for a good meal is basic techniques and the right combination of spices.
I still have another 2 weeks before I reach day 365 since graduating and can scratch off that big glaring “R” off my helmet. That doesn’t mean I still won’t ask a billion questions (okay maybe only a million) or spend time training with my shift. But that does mean I will get to sit on the couch. Then it’s off to bigger things, such as Pumps and Instructor III.
TL;DR - I learned how to make a dope dinner from a car guy and fed it to a bunch of firefighters, who realized that I can actually cook really good food.
P.S. Sorry this story is dense. But its like the cheesecake I made, dense but delicious