When we cook in the firehouse, we are extending and transferring our culture to each other

By Jarred R. Alden

The air in the station fills with the smell of jalapeño popper chicken casserole. The crew is salivating, waiting for the taste of the cook’s dinner dish pulled from his secret book of recipes. The first bite is an explosion of taste with just the right amount of heat, spices, cream cheese, bacon, and unidentifiable mixtures. The driver looks at the crew, awaiting the verdict. The driver looks at his lieutenant for the same. The lieutenant waits to give an answer as the drama builds around the dinner table. As the cook remains silent in anticipation of a “win,” the crew and lieutenant smile in “acceptance of a job well done.” The cook gives a sigh of relief and asks, “Why the dramatic buildup?” We all laugh and continue with the meal. This is an old firefighter tactic to get a laugh. Many of our meals and recipes were handed down through family over many generations. We share our culture, but we do not always give the specific details.

We discuss many topics pertaining to the fire department, current affairs, the pandemic, family, and the meal. We laugh as one crew member tells a funny story about his rookie mistakes. Hopefully, we all finish our last bite before we are toned out for a fire, rescue, or medical call. Firefighting and paramedic work are very demanding. Our brothers and sisters in this profession see the worst of the worst. We signed up for this job to assist our fellow human beings. Some people love us and want our help. Others do not want our help. Either way, we respond, we assess, we mitigate, we treat, and we rescue. We succeed, and sometimes we fail. Overall, we give it our best, always and in every situation. We bring our “A” game at all times–from 0730 to 0730 the next day. Even though we are an energetic people, we do need a break during the shift. One of our core facets of respite is food. We all pitch in for lunch and dinner. The driver usually cooks the meals and is, for the most part, the best cook in the station.

The Akron (OH) Fire Department has a diverse population of brothers and sisters from all over the United States. We are African American, Caucasian, and Latino. I am a mixture of English, Scottish, and Moroccan, according to my Ancestry results. I bring various pieces of my culture to the station when I cook for my crews. Moreover, a colleague of mine who works at a different station is Italian. He adds boiled eggs to his pasta dishes because it is good luck to find an egg in the serving. Culture is everywhere in this world, and it is ingrained in everything we do. Culture is the key component of our being. This existence is impossible without the socialization process. Socialization is the process by which we learn culture from the time of birth until the time of death. It is a fluid process, ever changing. We are socialized into this life through our world, nation, institutions such as school and the media, and our families and friends.

I was a sociology lecturer for six years. I instructed the introduction to sociology for two years prior to my joining the fire department. Subsequently, I taught this same subject for four years while working for the department. This subject fascinates me because the underpinnings view, assess, and study every aspect of life. Sociology is the systematic and scientific study of human social behavior on micro, meso, and macro levels. Sociologists study every aspect of life from deviance to collective behaviors. Some of the topics in which I studied and instructed include, but are not limited to, the following: statistics, research methodology, culture, socialization, social structures and procedures, deviance/crime, race, gender, education, economics, politics, terrorism, collective behaviors, and the media. Sociology is a broad discipline that is intertwined in every part of people’s lives. Culture is by far the most important aspect of our life experience and is the foundation on which sociology is built.

Culture is ingrained in our soul; we are culture. Without culture, we would not have an identity. Culture gives us a past, present, and future. Culture is not race or color. Culture is the culmination of beliefs, values, customs, traditions, norms, and much more. Culture also includes recipes for various foods we consume. When we cook for each other in the firehouse, we are extending and transferring our culture to each other. Some cooks in the firehouse do not give up their recipes; however, the culture is still extended to all brothers and sisters. The first day on company, after graduating from the Akron Fire Academy, I was presented with a feast at dinner time consisting of a full turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, and dessert. I could not believe that this was how firefighters ate. We do not eat like this all the time; however, I learned that food meant comradery and comfort.

Food gives us a way to release our stress. Seeing what we see, daily, builds a structure of stress that is unparalleled in the civilian world. Sharing meals with each other also gives us the opportunity to learn about each other. We discuss many topics while breaking bread together such as tactics, training, family, school, sports, and the list goes on. We lean on each other in many ways but, since food is a facet of culture, food brings our diverse cultures together to help build our strong bonds. We need these bonds when times get tough on the fireground and during medical calls. When culture is shared through discussion, tradition, recipes, and family, trust is built. Trust is the foundation of our brotherhood and sisterhood. Without trust and communication, meltdowns occur. This is unacceptable in our profession, especially when lives are in danger.

This structure of stress is cumulative and compounds as we gain more time on the job. These experiences build and provide us with the ability to act fast and with precision. However, these encounters also take form within the first responder’s psyche, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses and issues. Firefighter and law enforcement suicide rates are alarmingly high, and these numbers are growing.

We have many stress relievers on and off the job. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse and, at times, drug abuse are big stress relievers for first responders. Some of us relieve stress through promiscuity as well. These behaviors are self-destructive and will not provide answers to cries for help. Food connects us, brings us together, and provides the platform for us to share our culture. Moreover, as stated prior, food is culture. As we share meals, we also share culture as we communicate with each other. This is therapeutic to the core. Sometimes the cook’s job is thankless, but this is also therapy for the cook. Cooking for others builds many skills such as time management, money management, organization, and empathy. We depend on our meals for not just sustenance and energy but comfort.

I believe it important to add why trust is so important in the fire service. I must trust my crews to secure my water supply as my nozzleman and I enter a fire structure. I must also trust my crews with their skills as medics. People’s lives could be in danger if we are timid and incompetent. I, in turn, must earn their trust by providing cutting-edge training and by making good, solid decisions while responding to the public’s emergencies. This is where tactics and training come into play. Education is the foundation, while skills are developed putting education into play. However, repetitious training ingrains the skills and knowledge. As we build our “training schema” (mental training files), we can pull from these files and apply them to similar situations we encounter. This is simply problem-solving skills developed over time. Moreover, these skills will not develop properly unless trust is established among the crews. Culture assists in the development of trust. Culture provides the “blueprints” to build trust between people. The socialization process is how the extension of culture occurs. Recipes are part of culture but cooking, sharing meals, and discussions at the table are how culture is socialized or transferred to other people.

In 2013, I was privileged enough to take my family to San Francisco for nine days. We visited Alcatraz, John Muir Woods, Haight-Ashbury, Little Italy, and Chinatown. We also visited the fire stations in Haight-Ashbury and Chinatown. The Chinatown fire station was a special treat because, once we entered, the smell of fresh seafood being cooked caught our attention immediately. I was surprised by the fact that the district chief was cooking crab cakes, among other dishes, for his crews as they were training that summer morning. The station lieutenant answered the many questions that I had regarding water rescue since this station was located relatively close to the San Francisco Bay. The district chief was deep into his cooking but offered up some of his crab cakes, which were amazing. Per the district chief on duty that day, the seafood was bought across the street at a fresh seafood market. Fresh seafood, WOW!

This entire experience was interesting because the shift commander does not usually cook in fire departments. It is exceptionally rare for the district chief to cook at Akron Fire even though it does happen on occasion. The chief who greeted us that day was very generous. He was surprised by the fact that my children ate the crab cakes. We laughed and shared stories regarding fire and EMS alarms. They extended not just their food but their culture. Their encounters and stories were like mine yet still different due to the needs of our diverse communities. Our cultures meshed while consuming culture. We were able to relate to each other not just because of our profession but because we shared a portion of cultural sustenance together.

My wife is another participant in the formation of my cultural socialization. Sarah Alden is not just the love of my life; she extends her love to me through various cuisines. I am privileged to have such a great woman who is willing to provide wonderful meals for our family. Even though I cook for our family as well, she is the cornerstone of our strength and fortitude. She has been a pioneer in the search for culture through researching family recipes. She leans on her mother, Cathy Clay, and my mother, Peggy Alden. Both women have been handed down culture from their mothers, Eleanor Goertz and Willa Bean, respectively. Sarah has a Scandinavian heritage. She shares her culture with me through recipes, values, beliefs, and norms as most people extend their culture to others–the socialization process in action.

Culture comes in various structures and sizes. Culture can be seen on a small (micro) scale such as the family institution, on the (meso) level in our educational system, and on a larger (macro) scale nationally and internationally. Some of my brothers and sisters who serve have spouses and family who were born in other countries. One of my crew members is married to a woman from Singapore. She is Chinese and lived in Singapore prior to marrying my crew member. She speaks five different languages and works as a nurse. They travel to Singapore every year to visit her parents. My crew member brings back various pieces of culture to our station in the form of stories and food. This is a comfort and an enlightenment. I enjoy his stories and hearing his experiences as he meshes with his wife’s culture.

First responders’ days can be tough, and our lives stricken with grief at times, especially now, due to the pandemic and the social unrest. However, people tend to come together to assist each other in times of need. We are a resilient species, and we bounce back quickly after adversity. Culture provides the foundation in which we rebuild our lives and fight on. As stated earlier, food is a large facet of culture. It brings us together. Food is not just the tangible aspect of culture, it is the intangible portion that provides us with comfort, values, beliefs, norms, and traditions. Food is a large part of humanity, ingrained in the very core of our being. Share your culture with others through the socialization process. Assist those in need; be kind; make good choices; and, as my father Bruce Alden says, “Always do the right thing, the right way.”

The following is one of my wife’s recipes that I would like to share. I hope you enjoy it and please, pass it along, too.

This dish feeds four people. Depending on your crew size, you will have to experiment. If you’re feeding eight people, then simply double the ingredients provided here.
-HALF STICK OF BUTTER – Melt in a pan on MED.
-ONE PACKET DRY ITALIAN DRESSING SEASONING – Add the packet into the pan with the butter and stir.
-CONTAINER OF ONION CHIVE CREAM CHEESE – Add to the mixture and allow to melt in pan.
-TWO CANS OF GOLDEN MUSHROOM SOUP – Add into the pan mixture and stir until blended well. DO NOT use regular cream of mushroom soup. It will not taste the same. (Be sure not to let the mixture burn at the bottom. After the mixture is beginning to melt and blend, reduce the heat to low but keep stirring.)

Spray a casserole dish with nonstick spray. Place the chicken breasts in the casserole dish. Pour the mixture from the pan over the chicken breasts.

Cover the dish with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to confirm the chicken is thoroughly cooked.

After the dish is ready, spoon the mixture over angel hair pasta. Add a piece of chicken to the plate. The chicken can also be diced or cut into strips.

This dish is great with a side of sautéed corn, green beans, or asparagus. A salad is always a favorite, too.

Jarred R. Alden is a lieutenant, paramedic, and operations officer for the Akron (OH) Fire Department. He has 17 years of experience as a firefighter and 15 years as a paramedic. He also is a rescue/recovery SCUBA diver. Alden joined the Tactical Medic team in 2010 and is a SWAT/TEMS paramedic for the Akron Police Department’s SWAT team. He is an arson investigator and has investigated multiple blast scenes where explosives were used. He has presented explosives, blast injuries, tactical triage and treatment, and behavioral science classes throughout the country. Alden has a master of arts degree in applied behavioral sciences from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a baccalaureate degree in sociology/criminology from Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio.

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I love how you merge cultural adoption with food. It's soooo very true... I look back, and can vividly recall the camaraderie and the good feelings when having a warm meal after a particularly hard day.

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