The Firefighter's Secret Ingredient

By / Photography By Tom Dott | July 01, 2015
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Firefighter's Secret Ingredient

*This story contains a graphic description of a car accident that some readers may find disturbing.

The car was traveling at a speed close to triple digits when it careened into the telephone pole. I was happy to be walking farther into the woods...and farther away from the mayhem. Focused on the dancing shadows around the beam of my flashlight, I was thinking there was nothing more horrific-sounding than a grown man screaming—that is until I heard the Captain’s instructions to my brother Chris and me, something that turned my perspiration-soaked skin to ice. “Don’t just shine your flashlight at the ground, they were moving pretty fast, the passenger could be hanging from a tree.”

I was seventeen years old and looking for a body in the trees during a moonless night, very near the same section of woods where my brothers and I played cowboys and Indians not that long ago. As the others were feverishly working to cut the man from the twisted wreckage, he kept screaming “Charlie” over and over again...until the shock ramped up and he finally blacked out.

We walked deeper into the woods, wondering if we’d run into the vacant stare of Charlie. “If he’s alive he could be in shock and walking aimlessly. Let’s keep at it a little while longer,” the Captain told us, sounding noticeably shaken, as we scanned the ground, then slowly up the trees and back down again. I just wanted to go home, and I’m sure Chris and the other guys did too, but that’s not what you do when you're a firefighter. You swallow a little harder, you dig in, and you keep moving forward.

In spite of a pretty extensive search that night, I was relieved that we did not come across Charlie. But the next morning as we all wandered back into the firehouse to, well, just be around each other for comfort, I suppose—that’s what firefighters do—our eyes watered up as we learned that the police found Charlie’s lifeless body deep in the woods around dawn. He had done just what the Captain said people do sometimes. He walked aimlessly until he couldn’t anymore. But the worst thing for me was that Charlie was the man’s dog; he was screaming for his best friend. That has always stayed with me. All of it has...the feeling of soot in the lungs, the deep angst felt while fighting to keep a family’s home from being obliterated, the fear of what burning tire parts can do if they become projectiles, the intense body ache that comes with knowing that a metal hose nozzle pressured at 150 psi instantly becomes a killing machine if dropped. But after fourteen years as a volunteer firefighter the good stuff never left me either.

The firehouse is where our community came together. Several times a year the always-open doors of the firehouse hosted barbecues for the entire neighborhood, invited a visiting firehouse softball team for post-game chili, ran November’s annual “Turkey Night” and delivered Santa Claus in the fire truck every December, who’d stay until every kid got a toy (still got that transistor radio), and a thick slice of sugary-sweet peppermint sheet cake. Just like it is in so many homes, our firehouse kitchen was where everyone wanted to hang out. Steve, Joe, Stevie and a few of the others were always cooking up something, always under the watchful eyes of Bob, who reigned as king of the kitchen. If there was a pan out of place, Bob knew about it, and we all heard about it.

Preparing Chili
Preparing Chili
Trying out chili

As I entered the Hyannis Fire Department (HFD) on a recent afternoon, memories came flooding back when I met with the familiar and comforting scent of grease mixed with de-greaser. I was a member of a small party that had placed the winning bid on a generous donation by the fire department to the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District for their annual fundraiser. Our night included a tour of the firehouse, a ride on one of the trucks and dinner prepared by a firefighter/chef.

We were greeted by Mike Dalmau, a thirteen-year veteran of HFD and president of the Hyannis firefighter’s union, who started our tour by taking us downstairs to the kitchen, where the aromas morphed into something more familiar and comforting: roasted potatoes. Tom Corbett was our cook of the evening. With the department for 15 years, Corbett graduated with a culinary arts degree from Paul Smith College in upstate New York. Making his way to Cape Cod, he spent eight successful years wowing countless tourists and business travelers as the banquet chef at the Tara Hyannis Hotel (now the Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center at the West Main Street rotary).

The fifty-one men and three women who come and go during the department’s daily twelve-person shifts are all cross-trained to work the station’s three ambulances, three engines, heavy rescue truck, and 100-foot tower truck; and have their breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared by whichever resident cook is on duty. During the heavy storms this past winter when there were as many as thirty on a shift, the department leaned on Tom Corbett, their high-volume go-to cook.

Corbett stands six-foot four with a solid frame and a warm smile. His chili has made him famous in the firefighter’s world, winning “fan favorite” just about every year in the MDA’s statewide Firefighters Chili Challenge fundraiser. Word around town is that Corbett works wonders in the department’s 1960s-style kitchen, but when we actually see the very modest household five-burner oven and run-of-the-mill kitchen fridge, we realize the guy is preparing small miracles.

“You prepare all the meals on that?” I asked. Dalmau paused as I suddenly felt that my question might have been misconstrued as condescending—perhaps thinking I was making fun of this sanctimonious place (I wasn’t).

“Well…” Another long pause from Dalmau. “We have our coffee break room as back-up on busier days.” Leading the way down the hall, he shows us the backup plan: an even smaller unit with four electric burners.

“Hardly backup enough,” I thought, this time keeping it to myself. When it comes to preparing meals, they know that what they have to work with is barely sufficient, and I’m hit with a twinge of sadness knowing that these people deserve so much more, but it’s what they have, and so they make it work as best they can.

Corbett is not the only one contributing his culinary skills. There’s K.C. Pike, a transplanted Floridian, who makes an alligator chili with a real bite; their resident firefighter/oyster farmer, Jon Martin, who often surprises the gang with raw or Rockefellered treats; Bob Hennessy, whose name was mentioned several times during the evening, but never without the words “amazing breaded chicken with mayo” following it; dispatcher Jay Doherty, whose newest hobby is lobstering (making his fellow firefighters very happy to hit the “lucky lobster shift”); and, not to be out-trapped, there’s a lobsterman/firefighter named Kyle whose last name I didn’t catch due to the distraction of spontaneous belly rubbings caused by the mere mention of his lobster ceviche. All the meals are prepared family style, and everyone contributes. Those who can’t cook clear the table or wash the dishes.

The dining tables are set up end-to-end in a U shape. We are pleased to see that the four of us won’t be eating alone, as other firefighters arrive as the first part of the night’s meal—a heaping bowl of Caesar salad and a basket of warm rolls—is put in the window that separates the kitchen from the dining area. Dishes, forks and knives are passed around—none of which match—and although the firefighters deserve to dine in a lot more style, the wide array of patterns does have its charm.

Since our little gathering is kind of a “special event”, Corbett is plating beautifully-prepared cuts of prime rib with delicious homemade gravy, nicely sautéed zucchini and red peppers, and those crispy, roasted potatoes that welcomed us earlier. I felt like I was a kid at home again in Purchase, New York, on that little dead-end street where at night I could watch the comings and goings of the firehouse from my brother Peter’s bedroom window, and after school from inside the firehouse, I could keep an eye on my cat sunning herself on our front lawn.

Midway through dinner as Corbett readied dessert, we started talking about the challenges faced by the Hyannis Fire Department. The village of Hyannis is nine square miles. Within that area are hundreds of homes and businesses, Cape Cod Mall, a marina with two ferry services, the bus terminal and train depot, Cape Cod Hospital and Barnstable County Airport. Certainly a different situation than I had in Purchase, New York. Back there we also had the County Airport (Westchester) in our jurisdiction, but the alarm calls of our two departments were dramatically different. Having three major highways connected by winding country roads in Purchase made major car and truck accidents commonplace for us. In Hyannis, a city of sorts, high-speed crashes are rare, but more urban issues are prevalent and equally as disturbing. Unfortunately the department’s ambulances stay all too busy with drug overdoses. It’s a sensitive matter that they don’t like to dwell upon, but the problem is real and the subject becomes the elephant in the room.

The Hyannis Fire Department responds to a dizzying 7000 calls a year—a number I find hard to fathom. The differences between our suburban volunteer fire department and HFD are many, but the common denominators are the same: the underlying fear of having to respond to a major airline incident in your own neighborhood, the not knowing what you'll find behind the door when the ax hits the mark, the prayers that the person trapped in that familiar-looking car isn’t someone you know. But as Corbett places a Boston Cream Pie and a pot of coffee in the window, I'm suddenly struck with the other common denominator, one I hadn’t thought of, until now.

Edible magazines are dedicated to highlighting local farmers, local produce and local ingredients. Our dinner tonight was, for the most part, purchased at a big box store. When you’re cooking for so many and with a budget that’s incredibly meager—with the exception of the guys chipping in oysters, a few lobsters or some alligator meat—it’s almost impossible not to go that route. To be honest, I wasn’t sure where this story would go or if there was any story at all, but that night it was as clear to me as a fire bell why we were all gathered together.

On a cold December day in 1980, the Purchase Fire Department received a call to West Red Oak Lane. My cousin Albee was the chief at the time. Black smoke and the smell of burning wood a mile away told everyone in town that something serious was happening in Purchase. A flash fire broke out in the Stouffer’s Inn and Conference Center. Certain fire codes had not been in place yet (this event changed all that), so because of highly flammable carpeting and wall coverings and the lack of a sprinkler system, within the few minutes it took the department to arrive, 26 people died and 23 more were injured. It is still considered the worst disaster in Westchester County’s history.

Dishing out chili
Chili awards
Various fireman patches

But firefighters swallow a little harder, they dig in, and they keep moving forward. They lean on each other for support, for a ribbing, for a laugh. They gather around the firehouse kitchen counters and dining room tables, and they check in on one another, each person knowing that the person next to them has their back. They cook together, they eat together and then clean up together. If someone has something to offer for a meal, they offer it. When someone eats that meal, they are grateful. If this kind of caring and compassion isn’t the most important and most completely organic ingredient known to humankind, I don’t know what is. I mean, everything else is just seasoning and sauce, isn’t it?

Our meal was over, and as we started our thanks for a very satisfying meal, someone walked by Corbett and with a soft slap on the back bellowed, “You’re gonna make someone a great wife some day, Tommy!” Laughter erupted from around the table, and when Corbett smiled a tiny smile and rolled his eyes just so, we knew he’d heard that same old line a thousand times. Suddenly I missed my old gang back home.

Tom Dott is co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn on Cape Cod. Previously, Tom and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a 4-diamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a menu dedicated to all things local. Tom is an Elvis impersonator, has received three national Eddy writing awards and is two-time runner up. As an Elvis impersonator he remains awardless.

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