Backstory: They can take the heat ... in the kitchen

Firemen eat, sleep, cook, and ... shop together - pulling up to the supermarket in their fire engines on grocery runs.

Sometimes when Joe Caracciolo is standing in the kitchen with his firehouse crew, his eyes well up with tears. The athletic, dark-haired 28-year-old has been a firefighter at Engine Company 5 in Manhattan for nearly two years, but he admits that even the city's most experienced firefighters are no match for the painful task of chopping a juicy onion.

Every night in firehouse kitchens across the country, firefighters are chopping onions, sautéing garlic, and preparing elaborate meals for their crews.

Firefighters have always been known for their hearty staff meals. But as senior firefighters retire and more ethnically diverse recruits join the ranks, firehouse food has transformed from meat-and-potatoes fare to sophisticated cuisine, says Bob Adams, who has been collecting firehouse recipes for more than a dozen years and wrote the book "Firehouse Cooking."

Staff meals - the repartee, the teamwork - also play a powerful role in uniting the men and women who work in this dangerous profession.

Inside Engine Company 5 a few weeks ago, Mr. Caracciolo was in charge of the kitchen during his shift, which began at 6 p.m. and would end at 9 the next morning. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Caracciolo decided several years ago he'd rather fight fires than endure the frantic scramble of restaurant kitchens. In the firehouse, he says, cooking is fun.

"The only reason people get any takeout is if they're running around all day," says Caracciolo leaning against the kitchen countertop, his muscular forearms crossed. "Guys like to have a home-cooked meal. It's bonding time."

But timing a meal can be tricky because they never know when the alarm will ring. "We'll be cooking pasta and have to go on a run," Caracciolo says. "We'll come back and it's mush."

Winter is usually the busiest season. During the first 80 minutes of tonight's shift, the six-man crew gets called out twice for health emergencies. On the way back to the station, they park the engine outside a grocery store and - still wearing protective bunker pants and boots - go shopping. They grab ingredients for dinner: chicken breasts, mozzarella, basil, garlic, spinach, eggs, butter, tomato sauce, and Arborio rice. They share the cost and try to keep it between $5 and $10 per person, per meal.

Returning to the station around 8, Patrick Ventrudo, a second-year firefighter wearing a knit cap, and Eric Schaming, a tall, blond fourth-year fireman, join Caracciolo in the kitchen, simply furnished with wooden cupboards. It's traditional that junior firefighters prepare meals for superiors.

Mr. Ventrudo and Mr. Schaming switch the kitchen TV to the reality show "Fear Factor," in which contestants routinely feast on insects and worms. "Reminds me of the food here sometimes," Schaming says.

"You couldn't pay me enough," Ventrudo adds - then wonders aloud how cooked rat would smell.

Caracciolo, busy sautéing garlic, pretends he doesn't hear. But when Schaming complains that Caracciolo dislikes it when firefighters salt and pepper their food at the table, he can't resist a reply: "You're supposed to taste the food first."

At the kitchen table, Ventrudo's tattooed arms work the air as he snaps stems off baby spinach leaves. Caracciolo flattens the chicken with a mallet, folds it, and rolls handfuls of a thick beige goo - roasted garlic puree and shredded mozzarella and basil - into the chicken. Underneath an assortment of hanging aluminum pots and utensils, Schaming stirs a mixture of minced garlic and rice at the stainless steel six-burner gas stove.

Often they cook enough food to save leftovers, but veteran firefighters know to be wary of anything in the fridge, no matter how tasty it may look. "Every once in a while, someone fries up a sponge" complete with a breadcrumb coating, says Lt. Gary Cline, the officer on duty. Once, the crew put gravy into a container, topped it with whipped cream, and slipped it into the fridge to surprise a firefighter with a hankering for butterscotch pudding.

The three senior firefighters on duty drift in and out of the kitchen, and the conversation shifts from food to work to family - and back to food.

Firefighters don't often discuss the events of 9/11, in which 343 firefighters died in New York, but their routine of communal meals played an important role in healing. After 9/11, many firehouses became "living morgues," remembers Warren Spielberg, a psychologist at The New School. He volunteered to counsel firefighters in Brooklyn firehouses after the attacks.

Though the atmosphere in firehouses may have been hushed following 9/11, firefighters communicated with food, says Spielberg: "The idea of cooking for each other and reveling in food is one of the ways they nurture each other and take care of each other. It brings people together in a very simple ... very powerful way."

On 9/11, Engine Company 5 lost one of its own - Manuel Delvalle Jr., a seven-year veteran. Photos of Mr. DelValle hang next to the dinner table, and East 14th Street, at the intersection of First Avenue near the firehouse, has been renamed for the him. Food plays a large part in the way they remember Delvalle; each year on his birthday, his family visits the firehouse to cook dinner.

Caracciolo realizes the danger he faces on the job. That's one reason he wants to treat himself, and colleagues, with good food every day. "You never know if it's your last meal," he says.

When the chicken is cooked and the rice is al dente, Ventrudo calls "Chow's on!" into the intercom. The men pull mismatched chairs to the table and fill big oval plates with Caracciolo's stuffed and deep-fried chicken breasts, tomato-herb risotto, and wilted spinach. "Make sure you salt and pepper everything," Ventrudo reminds the crew. After raising their forks and murmuring their approval, they begin a discussion of the finer points of deep-fried items, such as Oreos and Twinkies.

"I worked in a restaurant that made deep-fried cheesecake," Caracciolo says. "Hey, you only live once."

On the TV facing the table, the local news reports on the latest from an apartment fire in Queens. The table goes quiet and Caracciolo turns up the volume to catch the report:"We're hearing from the fire department ... three children dead."

Despite the lighthearted kitchen talk, the grim reality of the job is never far from thought. The bonds that the firefighters build inside the firehouse, around the table, make them more like family members than co-workers, says Spielberg. That connection is important when they must trust each other with their lives.

Under the kitchen's fluorescent lights, the men are chewing their last bites when the alarm rings.

"Oh, boy!" Caracciolo whoops.

They pull on their bunker gear, hop into the fire engine and, within moments, disappear into the night - leaving dirty dishes for their return.

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