If the vintage cast iron skillet of Station 7 could talk, what would it reveal? The seasoned pan would hopefully share some of the countless meals prepared on its scarred surface since the 1980s. Maybe it would divulge a few good tales told by hungry firefighters who sit around the two oval kitchen tables, sharing meals and therapy sessions between fire calls. Would it confess to the incident about 15 years ago when a faux pas resulted in a new kitchen? “This room holds a lot of smoke,” admitted firefighter John Martin, the guilty cook who still whips up his own recipes in that heavy, black, beloved pan. Martin, one of the volunteer cooks of Station 7, described how those types of mishaps could occur: “Sometimes when you’re cooking something and you get a run, you forget to turn the stove off or you turn the burner the wrong way, thinking you’re turning it off, but you’re really turning it on high. By the time you get back from the run, there is usually a surprise waiting for you.” “It happens,” Martin shrugged. Station 7, located since 1873 on the corner of Franklin and Bancroft near downtown Toledo, is one of 19 stations within the Toledo Fire Department. Despite it being one of the busiest rescue squads in the nation, firefighters have developed a system for dealing with calls while cooking. But if Martin is at the kitchen helm and has to take a run in the middle of a meal, forced to abandon it and allow someone else to finish, he’ll yell, “Don’t mess it up!” as he’s rushing out the door.
He has his pride.
It is evident Martin takes great pleasure in his unofficial second job of firehouse cook, as he’s juggled both jobs for the past 24 years. Martin comes from a long line of firemen. When he was hired, five cousins were on the fire department, and his uncle and father were both retired firefighters. His father, Jack Martin, passed down the culinary skills to his son. “My father was on the job for 30 years, and he also cooked, so that’s where I kinda got it from. I grew up with it,” Martin recalled. “When I was a kid, I didn’t spend a ton of time at the firehouse, but my father cooked there and at home, so I was always watching. That’s where I got my ability to cook.” Martin specializes in chili and soups, but he also likes to cook healthy meals. “Nowadays I try to cook things a bit healthier than maybe some of the stuff they were used to eating way back when,” he said. A lot of grilling. Chicken and turkey. More vegetables. “I’m trying to stay away from a lot of fats and fried stuff, though it doesn’t always work,” he confessed. “If you want things to taste good, there’s going to be something bad in them.” Martin mostly shares cooking duties with Patrick Lanahan and Mike Lester, though he said every firefighter on the squad can cook. “Pat and I usually cook lunch and dinner, depending on what rig we’re on. One rig is busier than the other, so whoever is going to cook is usually on the engine. It’s like that at most stations. “Here, whoever is on the busier rig probably will not cook because we’re going to be in and out more. We try to make it so none of the meals get ruined or delayed.”
A big breakfast is key
The morning cook is usually Lester, affectionately dubbed “the breakfast guy.” “And I tell you what,” Lanahan emphasized, “people talk about breakfast being the most important meal of the day….in true regards to Mike, he always gives up a very big breakfast first thing. “It’s a lot of food usage, but we’re a busy station,” Lanahan explained. “When we get those (big breakfasts), and we don’t come back until one or two o’clock and the only thing we’ve had so far was breakfast, we would have been wiped out without it.” Lanahan, who has been a fireman for a decade, started cooking when he was fairly young. “My mom and dad were divorced, and my mom was working two jobs and going to school full-time, so we basically had to fend for ourselves. She taught us a lot about cooking and self-sufficiency, so I started learning that way,” he said. “When I was 15, I started working at Park Avenue Café as a dishwasher, and worked my way up to a prep cook, and then a line cook. When that closed, I went to Albon Inn Again, Adams Place, and then Ciao! when I was in college,” Lanahan recalled. “But I always wanted to be a firefighter, though it took a while for me to get hired. I got my education in Fire Science, and at that time they just weren’t hiring, and when they were, there were small classes of eight to 10. So it took me longer to get here. Just the same, I’m glad to be here. “To me, it’s therapeutic to cook, and an honor to share a meal with the crew. I like working hard in the kitchen to give them a good meal because they all work hard, so to me that’s a tribute to them. If I make a bad one, then it’s a bad day,” he said. Lanahan said he likes to cook Italian food because of the freshness of the ingredients, the fresh vegetables, and a lot of grilling. “Though one thing I want to mention, as far as working in the inner city goes,” Lanahan added with concern in his voice, “is how difficult it can be trying to get some of the produce you want. “You got grocery stores that are close by, but look at how much you pay for that produce, and the quality of the produce; it’s actually horrific. I feel bad for the people who live close by who don’t have transportation to get fresh produce. “It’s great when the Farmer’s Market is in full force, but a lot of people don’t have the ability to get down there to get quality produce. So we shop out of district a lot just to get things we need, or shop before we come in.”
Shopping for the crew
Since fire crews eat together, they also shop together. On a recent grocery shopping spree, Martin led a crew of four to Kroger on Alexis Rd. near Lewis Ave., where they loaded their cart with sausage for lunch and steaks for dinner, as well as brussels sprouts, milk, wheat bread, hot dog buns and potato chips. At the checkout counter, Martin handed the cashier a wad of cash he had collected from all seven firefighters on their shift that day. For those shoppers who witnessed their purchase of nearly seven pounds of steak and assumed it was a luxury item paid for by the city, they were mistaken. “That’s a common misconception,” pointed out firefighter Luke Wentz. “When we’re shopping at Kroger, folks come by and they think the city’s paying for our food. It’s not the case.” Martin explained that at Station 7, they have seven guys on his shift, so that’s $70 to work from. “Sometimes we might only spend $50 at the grocery store, and that $20 carries over. When we build up an extra $100, we spend it on prime rib and lobster, but we pay for it ourselves.”
Stocking the station
Martin explained that Toledo firefighters are also responsible for buying most of the amenities and comforts inside their stations. The city basically only provides a stove and a refrigerator. The firefighters pay for everything else. “Some stations will have a lot of things, like televisions and recliners, and some stations won’t have much at all because guys don’t want to pay for it. The city provides us with very little,” he said. Typically, firefighters will pitch in $10 for every day they work, and an additional $12 from each paycheck for essentials around the station, which includes cable television, the internet, cooking ingredients, smokers, big grills, and even their pots and pans. “There are pots and pans from the guys back in the ’70s and ’80s that are still in these engine houses,” exclaimed firefighter Adam Bonnell as someone pulled out the old iron skillet to make his point. “There were so many good meals made out of those pots and pans, and we still use some of them. There’s a lot of history in that frying pan,” he said. Yes, if only that skillet could talk.