Join food journalist David Boylan as he shares his experience cooking and eating with firefighters at Traverse City’s Fire Station #1 on Front Street. He shares how our local firefighters plan and prepare their large group meals and meets the crew.

My fascination with and admiration of firefighters goes way back to my youth and has continued into my adult life. Growing up in Royal Oak, we had a station a block from our home, so after school and Saturdays were spent hanging out, waiting for the big rolling doors to open and the excitement to begin—along with the elusive invitation to slide down the fire pole. What I didn’t know then is that within those walls, great food on a budget was being prepared by my heroes—from gourmet meals to meat and potato basics.

Flash forward to my pursuit of food journalism as a career, and it makes some kind of sense that I would find a way to involve firefighters. In the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune to record radio interviews with, and be fed by, firefighters at that station in Royal Oak; in Encinitas, California; and in Traverse City. The interview/meal in Encinitas that I was recording with my son, Quinn, was interrupted by an alarm. My question of, “What do you want us to do while you are gone?” was met, to our surprise and joy, with the captain’s reply, “Throw on a helmet and get in the truck.” It was one of the great thrills of our lives and a memory that will last a lifetime. I like to say I was the first embedded food journalist to go on a run with firefighters. I have no proof to back that up, but it’s a good story nonetheless.

Firefighters in Traverse City enjoying a grilled BBQ meal.

Photo by Tony Demin

These guys are natural storytellers who are quick to laugh and welcomed me to share a slice of their world with open arms.

As a food journalist, I’ve found that firefighters offer a unique perspective on cooking and grilling. Fire stations are a home away from home for the first responders who inhabit them, and they function similarly to any scenario where a group of men and women with big appetites live under the same roof. Rules, budgets and pecking order of culinary talent are in place to ensure the team is well fed. Scheduled meals are at- tempted, but sometimes impossible due to the unpredictable nature of being called into action at a moment’s notice.
A real challenge for the fire station cooks is to produce a solid meal on a slim budget. Firehouses have a built-in expectation of eating lunch and dinner for around $10 per firefighter, and the better cooks can throw down amazing meals at or below budget. Firefighters choose to have $10 a month withdrawn from their paychecks to be added into a staples fund. This allows them to save money on shared supplies like condiments, pasta, coffee and items that are cheaper when purchased in bulk.

Holidays, birthdays and the like are opportunities to bring the crew together to share a meal. It is also common to have family visit the station to join the firefighters’ table on occasion, and it’s not uncommon to have a dinner with 12–15 people in attendance.

Close up of Traverse City firefighter.

Photo by Tony Demin

Traverse City firefighter trucks and uniform.

Photo by Tony Demin

My latest fire station adventure had me revisiting Traverse City Fire Station #1 on Front Street on a perfect 80-degree, Northern Michigan summer day. I walked into the station to find some familiar faces and some new ones, and was greeted by the smell of a grill heating up on the back patio. While everyone at the station is expected to take their turn cooking on a regular schedule, those with more culinary aptitude definitely spend more time in the kitchen and over the grill. A very high percentage of firefighters, especially in Traverse City, fish and hunt, which means a plethora of fish and game is available almost year-round from the freezer. They each have their specialties, and I’ll never forget the firefighter who described how his family catches so much walleye each year they have taken to cooking deep-fried “walleye nuggets” and serving them by the basketful at family gatherings.
The meal I was lucky enough to be a part of on that beautiful summer day was inspired by the produce in season at the time. Local farmers had an abundance of sweet corn and asparagus available days after harvest, and the New York steaks came from Maxbauer’s Meat Market. The polenta was perfect, with a bit of heat provided by poblano peppers that contrasted with the sweetness of the corn. The corn and peppers were grilled as well to bring out the natural sugars and provide extra flavor. The food was quickly devoured by the hungry crew over stories of what fish were biting where in the region.

As a culinary journalist who has had a wide range of fabulous dining experiences, this firehouse meal was right up there with the best I’ve had. These guys are natural storytellers who are quick to laugh and welcomed me to share a slice of their world with open arms. It also allowed me to immerse myself into the entire fire station meal process, adding dimension to my series of fire station adventures … on a glorious summer afternoon in Traverse City. It was a most excellent day.

Meet the Crew

Three Traverse City firefighters in front of a firetruck.

Photo by Tony Demin

Best part of living in TC: Boating and hanging out on the water.
Signature dish at the station: Fish tacos topped with mango habanero salsa bought downtown at American Spoon.

Best day on the job so far: Every shift is the best day, especially when you work with the most dedicated and professional men in the business.
Signature dish at the station: Chicken stroganoff with No Yolks noodles.

Favorite food splurge: Sushi.
Signature dish at the station: Chicken Adobo—a Filipino stew of soy sauce and vinegar with enough garlic to keep vampires away for a two-mile radius.

Three words that describe how you feel after a long shift: I’m going home.
Signature dish at the station: Carbonara and no-bake cookies.

Local produce you love best: Anything from a farmers market and Hall’s summer corn.
Signature dish at the station: Firehouse Sloppy Joes and tater tots.

What people might not know about being a firefighter: The hidden toll the job takes on family and friends.
Signature dish at the station: Steak stir-fry.

Photo(s) by Tony Demin