Kale or Pizza? Firehouse Fare in Brooklyn Heights

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An Engine Company and a Ladder Company share a firehouse, where they quietly compete in the kitchen

Tommy Dowdle.

(Photo by Kasiana McLenaghan / The Brooklyn Ink)

Tommy Dowdle, 40, is a wiry guy with a sleeve tattoo pastiche of bald eagles and American flags wrapped around his left arm. Unlike the rest of the firemen on duty this evening, he eschews vegetables and other healthy foods. When asked what kinds of things he likes to cook, Tommy replies, “Anything fried.”

Tommy has been with Engine 205 for 12 years. The company’s truck, also called a pumper, looks like a quintessential fire engine, red with white and silver accents, hoses circled up in the back.  Engine 205 shares a station house with Ladder 118, a separate, though complementary, firefighting company. The ladder truck is half as long as the pumper, split at the middle, with a second driver responsible for maneuvering the back half. It is dominated by a ladder folded up like an accordion along its spine, which can extend up to six stories tall when unfurled.  When not out on a call, the two enormous fire trucks are tucked side by side in station’s airy garage. As Tommy explains, the two companies work together but have different roles when responding to a fire. The ladder company goes in first, jamming their way through doors and looking for signs of life.  The engine company focuses on putting out the flames.

While the two companies work together, they are also good-natured rivals. “The ladder guys like to break stuff,” says Tommy. “Engine guys are more careful.”

According to Tommy, engine guys are also better cooks. The teams alternate cooking duties each month and, unfortunately for me, July is a ladder month. It’s really too bad, Tommy tells me, because the ladder team doesn’t take their cooking duties very seriously. “They just order pizza,” Tommy says.  The rest of the engine team heartily concurs.

Before Tommy can say more, the alarm sounds and a voice materializes over the crackling loud speakers, barking instructions.  The Engine team jumps into their uniforms and onto their vehicle, sirens spinning down the block. A few minutes later the Ladder team, having completed a run, return their truck to the station garage, pull off their heavy jackets and trousers and get to work on dinner.

The firehouse dining room is a cross between an industrial kitchen and a college apartment. Equipped with an aging commercial range, exposed shelves, and oversized pots and pans, the kitchen is well used, feeding 11 hungry men each evening. The seating area features drop ceilings and fluorescent lighting, with a motley assortment of couches, rolling leather office chairs, and sagging recliners to accommodate the crew. It is anchored by a circular dining table, which doubles as a prep station, and a large television, tuned this evening to a Euro Cup soccer match.

Arnold Harney, 29, the ladder truck driver and this evening’s head cook, walks over to Nigel Francis, 33, and Matt Duvall, 35, who are preparing a dozen or so sweet potatoes. “What’s this?” says Harney, holding up a quartered potato.

“You said quarters,” said Duvall. “You were very specific.”

“I asked you to chop them. Just pull all of these back out and chop them.”

Francis and Duvall, aghast, insist that they followed instructions, that they had even clarified that Harney wanted quarters and not what Francis keeps calling half moons. The three bicker back and forth, shifting between ribbing and what sounds like genuine frustration until Harney relents. “I’m sorry, OK?  I made a mistake.  I meant to chop them up.  Would you please chop them?”

A taciturn person, and no obvious fan of having a visitor tag along for dinner, Harney isn’t the kind of guy you would expect to easily apologize. He’s also not the kind of guy you might expect to assemble a kale salad, but that’s exactly what he’s doing this evening, pouring lemon juice and olive oil over the deep green leaves and giving them a brisk massage. The salad will complement the soon-to-be roasted sweet potatoes and a pork loin stuffed with spinach and mozzarella cheese. Miraculously, the latter two items make it into and out of the oven successfully, thoroughly cooked but not scorched, despite repeated calls that come in for both companies while the food cooks.

When asked why the engine guys would insist that the ladder relied on takeout pizza for dinner, Duvall replies that the engine team is just mad. “Ladder guys cook better meals,” he said.

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