Frederick County's Fire Companies Prepare Meals for their Big Families
It’s 6:02 p.m. when the call comes over the internal speakers at Junior Fire Company No. 2 in Downtown Frederick: “Dinner’s on.” Shortly after, the seven members of the company on call are putting food on their plates. It’s a jovial affair, with jokes flying around the room.
Tonight’s menu, courtesy of Bryan Felix, a firefighter and EMT, is individual meatloaves stuffed with ham and cheese, chipotle macaroni-and-cheese and sautéed zucchini and squash. Felix is modest, but members of his company are big fans of his food—it’s why he’s often in charge of cooking, though he’s quick to give credit to other members of the staff who help.
“When you eat his food, it’s a meal,” says firefighter and EMT Mathew Gelenian. “The meatloaf complements the mac-and-cheese and the vegetables. … Some places rotate the guy who cooks, but it’s nice having one cook with one flavor, one style.”
Of course, serving dinner at a fire company means flexibility at mealtimes is key. The first person through the line, a member of the EMT staff, has only started to put his plate together when a call rings out over the loudspeaker, and he has to dash off to an emergency. It’s a fairly common occurrence, no matter which fire company you ask. “A lot of times we eat a lot of cold meals because sometimes we won’t be around to eat until three in the afternoon for lunch or 10 at night for dinner,” says Mitch Krysiak, a firefighter and EMT with Independent Hose Company #1 Fire and Rescue. “I went about two months once without a warm meal.”
“A lot of times we eat a lot of cold meals because sometimes we won’t be around to eat until three in the afternoon for lunch or 10 at night for dinner.”
Felix says in those times when he needs to run out on a meal, he’ll often hand over cooking to another member of staff who’s not needed to respond, and sometimes will help troubleshoot problems over the phone on the trip back to the station, handing off his phone to another firefighter to take the call and ask questions.
He says the crew looks forward to mealtimes, despite the possibility of interruption, as a chance to enjoy each other’s company. “This is our time to sit down together,” he says. “Mealtime is kind of sacred time for us.”
Much like many home cooks, the firefighters shop the sales, checking out the latest grocery store circulars when planning a menu. The members on a shift all pay $5 per meal into a communal pool that is used to pay for the meals, but the quantity of food and number of people means a daily grocery trip.
Keith Livelsberger, a firefighter and EMT with Carroll Manor Fire Company, says his shifts typically bring their own lunch, but eat dinner together. As the company only has three people working at a time, it means they have to be thrifty when planning dinner. “We try to save money when we can and keep that $15 every shift in our kitty, and if we make some extra money, we splurge here and there when you can,” he says.
Livelsberger says one of his specialties is sesame chicken, which he picked up from the internet a few years ago and is now sometimes requested by his fellow firefighters. While he had some experience in the kitchen, he said his time in the fire company has made a huge difference in his skills. “I liked to cook some beforehand, but I didn’t get much better until I got to the firehouse and started cooking a lot,” Livelsberger says. “I do most of the cooking—I have to do a gluten-free diet, and it helps to figure out what we can eat and what we can’t eat.”
Recipes seem to pass among firefighters as they move about the county, or beyond. Felix often prepares what he calls dirty chicken, a recipe he learned from a member of the company years ago. It’s since migrated to Pennsylvania with the wife of a company member, and to Ocean City, thanks to a volunteer who spends time there.
Much like crew sizes vary, the sizes of the kitchens in the firehouses range wildly depending on the size of the shift. For Livelsberger, he’s working in an apartment-sized kitchen, roughly the size of three standard stoves. “It’s like a closet,” he jokes. “You can touch both walls if you stand in the middle. We have a stove, a sink and small counter—that’s the extent of it.”
Cooking for a group means adaptability is key, whether a strict dietary restriction or a simple preference for food that isn’t spicy is at play. Krysiak also shops the sales, combing for deals to feed eight to 10 people lunch and dinner at his fire house. “Everyone has their own preferences,” he says. “Someone doesn’t like onions, some people don’t like peppers, some don’t like spicy food. So you try to adapt around that.”
Krysiak has the benefit of a commercial-sized kitchen, as the company used to host banquets in their facility. He said some of his regular meals are cast-iron chicken pot pie, a jambalaya with corn bread they call corn cake and Mexican options like tacos. “The main misconception I believe is that a lot of us eat steaks and all that stuff,” he says. “… We do try to eat healthy sometimes. It’s not always loading up on proteins and carbs because we know what we need to be able to perform the job. It’s kind of balancing that out, too.”
No matter what’s on the menu, cooking for a crew of hungry firefighters comes with one very important rule: feed everyone. “The key is you never pull up short,” Krysiak says. “It’s better to have extra leftovers than it is to not feed anybody. The leftovers will go with the guys that have to work again the next day or it’s breakfast
for the next shift.”