"Let's eat, let's eat!" yelled Lt. Kenneth Probst, firefighter and volunteer chef in D.C.'s Fire Engine Company No. 2. The 15 firefighters of Engine No. 2 and Truck No. 1 filed up behind the counter for their 8 a.m. breakfast at the station at 500 F St. NW.
"Over-easy," requested Deputy Chief Bernard Johnson as he was served two fried eggs from the grill.
"They can request what they want but we give them what we want," laughed Probst, who cooked for his family as he was growing up in Franklin, W. Va. It was therefore natural for Probst to volunteer to do all the cooking when he was a firefighter on Engine No. 1 at 23rd and M streets and now with Engine No. 2.
Johnson moved on to scoop up the rest of his brakfast: a huge plastic glass of orange juice, a sandwich of chipped beef in cream sauce, peppery fried potatoes with onions, and two pieces of Mrs. Wright's old-fashioned white toast served with butter.
Breakfast -- the more leisurely meal at the firehouse since few fires start in the morning -- is always substantial. "We usually have a meat and an egg group with potatoes or grits as a filler," says Probst. Pancakes, french toast, bacon, sausage, scrapple and grits -- the list goes on.
Probst explained that he never knows when he'll have to leave the stove and let the food go to ruin. "That's why the one-two-three meal is simplest. You just stick a roast in the oven, then boil some potatoes, which you eventually mash, and then cook some beans to death, the West Virginia way, and season them well with bacon fat and a little touch of sugar."
Most of the time Probst remembers to turn off the stove or to yell to someone left behind to turn it off when tirefighters are on the run. But there have been occasions when he has forgotten and ruined dinner.
"The other night I had just finished making spaghetti and was ready to dip it up when we were transferred to another fire station. By the time we came back, (the spaghetti) was like a brick."
With an average of 150 runs per firehouse each month, firemen have one ear tuned to the alarm whether they are eating, cleaning the equipment or doing fire drills.
Each firehouse has its own system with cooks. At some fire stations, the members rotate chef duty. Others have one main cook all the time. In Engine No. 2, the members take turns but, because Probst enjoys cooking, he volunteers more frequently than some of the others. "If you don't cook you don't eat" is the philosophy in other firehouses.
Firehouse food could not be called gourmet; rather, it is substantial, sometimes reflecting the ethnic background of the chosen chef and sometimes the tastes of the other firemen. Shake 'n Bake, broiled or fried chicken, meat loaf, fried fish, roasts, chili and turkey are all typical dinner meals. In summer, Engine No. 2 grills chicken and steaks in the back parking lot on a grill that one fireman made.
When members of Engine No. 2 start their shift, at 6:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., each participating member chips in $2 for breakfast or $3 for evening. For this they get the meal plus any leftovers from the previous shift. The cook shops either that morning or the day before, depending on his schedule.
Coffee is maintained out of a different kitty with $2 contributed each payday. Outsiders can participate for 25 cents a cup. With any leftover money, the group might buy cookware for the station or treat themselves to a good steak dinner on a special occasion.
At lunch a commissary is operated out of a locked cupboard. Campbell's Tomato or Vegetable Beef soup, Pop- Tarts, canned sardines, tuna and shrimp, Kool-Aid, and Three Musketeers bars were for sale on a recent Saturday. The firemen use their microwave oven to heat up food.
As Probst cleaned the grill after the last of his egg requests were met, he said, "The most difficult part of this job is the heckling. If you can't take that, then you shouldn't cook. You have to be thick-skinned to put up with these guys. And if the men don't like the food, they just don't eat."