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A fire department Thanksgiving

You can take firefighters away from Thanksgiving dinner at home but you can't take Thanksgiving dinner away from the firefighters.

Denise Gamino

Just before 5 p.m., a woman shows up at Fire Station 18 in Northeast Austin.

It is Thanksgiving Day, 2008, and she's at the front door with dozens of homemade cookies. Her gift is gratitude for the firefighters who helped her parents a month earlier when they smelled smoke and called for help.

The firefighters 'were so sweet and so kind and so good-looking,' says Sally Doll.

She hands over several boxes of snickerdoodle and chocolate chip cookies.

'If you're good, you'll get more at Christmas.'

A glimpse into the big kitchen of Fire Station 18 reveals so much holiday food that it might take until Christmas before the crew is hungry enough for the surprise cookies.

You can take firefighters away from Thanksgiving dinner at home, but you can't take Thanksgiving dinner away from firefighters.

Thanksgiving at Fire Station 18 is not about two-alarm chili. Longtime custom at this firehouse brings the families of the firefighters to the station for a traditional holiday meal.

"You've got to have turkey at Thanksgiving," says firefighter Tyler Eads, a foodie with a large organic garden at home.

Emergencies don't take holidays.

On Thanksgiving, like any other day, houses catch fire, cars crash and people fall out of trees. First responders, the public servants who get us out of the messes we get ourselves into, must be on duty. And they must eat.

The eight-member crew of Station 18 at 6311 Berkman Drive, a few blocks east of the intersection of Cameron Road and U.S. 290 East, is determined to sit down for a conventional holiday meal in between emergency calls.

Firefighters know how to cook. Making meals is part of the job. They aren't allowed to eat in restaurants while on duty. They cannot shop at the grocery store during their 24-hour shifts, either. They can't even call in a food order and pick it up in a firetruck.

They bring prepared food from home for lunch, then cook dinner at the station.

On the station's Thanksgiving menu: two deep-fried marinated turkeys, two batches of dressing from one family's top-secret recipe, one baked ham, 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, two pans of baked rolls, four different cranberry relishes, marinated organic tomatoes, two jalapeño corn casseroles, chopped salad, seven homemade pies, one multilayer German chocolate cake with pecan praline filling, dozens of cookies and - the big splurge for the firefighters - a bag of Colombian coffee from Starbucks.

By late afternoon, Station 18 feels more like Grand Central Station.

The eight firemen invited their wives, children, parents and other loved ones to eat their home-cooked meal. Almost 30 people drift about the four-room firehouse. The swirl of humanity includes a baby taking his first steps.

Next to the kitchen is a dormlike bedroom at the center of the house. Beds with dark blue covers are shoved to the sidelines and folding tables have been set up for dining. Six-year-old Jacob Oehler is giving one of the single-sized beds the trampoline treatment. "I don't do it at home, but I do it here," he says.

His father, firefighter Brian Oehler, is frying the second of two turkeys in the station's side yard using his deep fryer from home. He marinated the turkeys overnight and sprinkled them with Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning.

Lt. Wayne Parrish, the officer in charge, and firefighter Bruce Mayo, a holdover from another shift, peeled the 10 pounds of potatoes boiling on the station's six-burner Vulcan stove.

In the parking lot behind the station, firefighter Bryan Kohler checks the progress of a 9-pound ham. He uses a weathered Weber grill as an oven. "You've got to improvise with a lot of people, a lot of food."

This Thanksgiving feast is actually Plan B.

Enchiladas were Plan A. The year before, the station crew nominated firefighter Isaac Rodriguez to supervise a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving. He's famous for savory beef enchiladas made from scratch using an old family recipe. But Rodriguez put in for vacation and wasn't available for holiday cooking after all. When the enchilada menu fell through, the crew opted for a typical Thanksgiving dinner.

Another secret family recipe stepped in and took center stage: the cornbread dressing.

Firefighter Kelly Knobloch's wife is so protective of her grandmother's recipe she almost didn't let her husband have it for the feast. Knobloch had to pledge to keep the ingredients to himself.

At 5:05 p.m., about an hour before dinner will be ready, the fire alarm buzzes and the four firefighters assigned to the fire engine are dispatched by loudspeaker to aid someone in respiratory distress.

"Go ahead and pull the dressing (from the oven)," Knobloch tells his colleagues as he flies out the door. "There are two pieces of foil over there."

Knobloch is head of the engine, whose crew has already been out on four calls since noon. Shifts begin and end at noon. Firefighters work a round-the-clock shift and then have 48 hours off.

Before the engine crew could return from the respiratory distress call, it was dispatched from the field to take care of a seizure patient.

Meantime, in the kitchen, the gang worries there might not be enough meat to go around.

"We really should have done three (turkeys)," Eads says. "We're expecting everyone to eat like firemen: half a pound of meat per person."

"We've got corn dogs just in case," someone jokes.

"There's always Papa John's," says another.

Eads, the organic gardener, is married to a professional baker with a degree in chemistry. Melissa Eads arrives with their toddler, Mia; infant son, Luke; and a German chocolate cake with chocolate ganache frosting so perfect it looks straight out of the late, great Gourmet magazine. Her company, Cakeism (www.cakeism.com), bakes wedding cakes as well as novelty cakes in almost any size or shape.

But pies outnumber cakes and cookies here. Mona Parrish, wife of the lieutenant in charge, baked seven pies even though another family gathering kept her away from the dinner.

There is so much food on the 10-foot kitchen table that a card table is brought in to hold the cranberry relishes, corn casseroles and dressing.

Firefighter Chris Throop made the cranberry relishes and brought them over from another fire house, where he had been sent as a holiday fill-in. None of the firefighters wanted to leave Station 18 on the holiday, so Throop and Knobloch flipped a coin to see who would have to go. Throop called tails and lost, but he and three other firefighters from another station came by for dinner.

He whipped up the four different cranberry dishes by accident. His search for the perfect recipe got him hooked. "I got carried away," he says.

He grabs some yellow sticky notes to label the cranberry relish dishes:

1. "Sour cream, onion, cran! Yum!"

2. "Regular" (famous foodie Mark Bittman's tart recipe).

3. "Less tart, for kids" (Epicurean's cran/cherry sauce).

4. "Garlic breath, folks! Garlic and ginger" (radio journalist Susan Stamberg's famous tangy cranberry relish recipe from her mother-in-law).

The cranberry lineup, in various shades of pink and red, collides with the kitchen's eclectic decor.

Above the table is a salvaged piñata - a girl with pink hair whose head is nearly broken off. It's a souvenir from one of the crew's more memorable emergency runs. Someone called 911 to report a body in a Dumpster. When the crew arrived, all it found was a smashed piñata. The other piñata hanging nearby is shaped like a fire truck.

Baking rolls scent the kitchen with a warm, yeasty perfume.

It's 5:50 p.m. and everything appears to be ready.

"It's hot," says firefighter Tim Vandermeer.

Those two words are the station crew's call to come and get it. But no one hears Vandermeer.

"All right. It's hot! It's hot!" says Lt. Parrish with a bit more gusto.

Just then the fire alarm goes off again and the engine is dispatched to a house where someone is choking. Four firefighters file out and don't return for more than an hour.

In the meantime, everyone else piles their disposable plates with the holiday bounty and things get quiet. The remaining firefighters sit with their wives and children while the extra shift from the other station watches football on the big screen TV that firefighter Mayo donated to the station. The TV is in the front room, where the few torn and wobbly chairs look like they were rescued from a secondhand store's reject pile.

There's still plenty of food when the engine crew gets back at 7 p.m. Most of the hungry crew eats so fast they hardly take time to sit down. Not Mayo. His just-completed task of saving the life of a man choking on Thanksgiving dinner has left him without an appetite for the time being. He leans against the kitchen counter, a wan expression on his face.

Normally, he's a fast eater, a firehouse trait developed by not knowing when the next fire alarm will blast. He says he once went on a date with a woman who was flabbergasted by his 80-mile-an-hour eating speed. "That was so rude," she told him after he finished eating dinner while she was still on her salad.

After dinner, the fire station garage turns into a playground. The two bright red fire trucks are on the driveway, giving the young children plenty of room to race.

The adults are gnawing on toothpicks and contemplating second - and third - helpings of dessert.

"Oh yeah," says firefighter Gavin Finlay, as he pats his stomach. "That's the South Beach cake right there."

The emergency corn dogs remain tucked away in the freezer.

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675

Pumpkin Pie

From Mona Parrish, wife of Lt. Wayne Parrish.

1 9-inch pie shell, unbaked

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 15 oz. can of solid-pack pumpkin

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup

1 cup evaporated milk

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. salt

Line a pie tin with pastry. In a bown, beat eggs and sugars well and add to the pumpkin. Mix well. Add corn syrup, milk and spices. Pour into pie tin and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the filling is solid. Cool and serve with whipped cream, if desired.

Marinated Tomatoes

From firefighter Tyler Eads.

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 Tbsp. sugar

11/2 tsp. garlic salt

11/2 tsp. seasoned salt

1/2 tsp. ground pepper

3/4 tsp. dried thyme

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

2 to 3 green onions chopped

4 to 6 large tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges (we like to use cherry tomatoes instead, cut in 1/2)

Combine all ingredients, except tomatoes, in a large mixing bowl. Whisk well.

Place tomatoes in a resealable plastic bag and pour marinade over them.

Marinate at room temperature for up to 2 hours, turning the bag occasionally.

Deep-Fried Turkey

From firefighter Brian Oehler.

Turkey

Tony Chachere's Creole Butter Injectable Marinade

Peanut oil

Inject turkey with Tony Chachere's Creole Butter Injectable Marinade 24 hours before cooking. Follow directions on bottle.

Fry turkey 5 minutes per pound at 250 to 270 degrees .

Jalapeño Corn Casserole

From Jennifer Finlay, wife of firefighter Gavin Finlay.

4 3-oz. packages cream cheese

1/2 cup milk

4 Tbsp. butter

1 tsp. garlic salt

3 fresh, seeded, chopped jalapeños

4 12 oz. cans drained white shoepeg corn

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, place cream cheese, milk, butter and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring until cheese and butter melt, forming a sauce. Remove from heat. Mix in jalapeños and corn. Pour into a 9-inch-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Bake 30 minutes or until bubbly. (Metal pan can be used if you don't have glass).

Sweet Potato Casserole

From Lynn Finlay, mother of firefighter Gavin Finlay.

Casserole:

6 cooked sweet potatoes or one large and one regular can sweet potatoes or yams (drain)

1 stick butter

1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1/4 cup sugar

11/2 cups small marshmallows (2/3 of a small bag)

Topping:

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 Tbsp. flour

1/2 stick butter, melted

Chopped pecans to taste

Mash potatoes (Finlay uses a potato masher). Melt butter in microwave (it takes less than a minute). Mix all casserole ingredients.

Grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan or glass dish and bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.

Mix ingredients for topping together, place on casserole and cook 10 minutes longer, or just long enough to melt the topping.

German Chocolate Cake

From Cakeism's Melissa Eads, wife of firefighter Tyler Eads.

Cake:

4 large eggs (divided)

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup boiling water

4 oz. German's sweet baking chocolate (finely chopped)

1 cup sour cream

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch-by-2-inch round pans.

Separate eggs; set aside. Sift together flour, salt and baking soda; set aside.

Combine boiling water and chocolate, stir until chocolate is melted; set aside. Combine sour cream and vanilla; set aside.

Beat butter until creamy. Gradually add sugar; beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture. Beat in egg yolks one at a time.

Add melted chocolate mixture and beat just until incorporated.

Add flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with sour cream mixture in 2 parts (beginning and ending with flour mixture). In separate bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until the peaks are stiff but not dry.

Carefully fold egg whites into batter.

Divide batter among pans and bake until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean (25 to 30 minutes).

Chocolate Ganache Frosting

12 oz. semisweet chocolate (chopped)

11/4 cups heavy cream

Place chocolate in metal or ovenproof glass bowl; set aside.

Heat cream in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until it just starts to boil. Remove cream immediately from heat and pour it over the chocolate. Let mixture stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Gently stir the mixture with a wire whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and there are no noticeable traces of cream. Allow ganache to sit at room temp to cool and thicken.

Once it has cooled you may refrigerate it for a short time if needed in order to thicken it to spreading/frosting consistency.

Find a recipe for a pecan praline filing for this cake at austin360.com/forklore

Quick and Easy Pie Crust

A recipe from "The Second Typically Texas Cookbook" published by the Association of Texas Electric Cooperatives Inc. Copyright 1989. Recipe submitted by Billie Jakubicek, Seymour, B-K Electric Coop.

11/2 cups flour

1/2 cup oil

1/4 cup milk

Dash of salt

Mix all ingredients together and press in a 9-inch pie pan. Do not roll out.

Pecan Praline Filling

1 cup sugar

1 cup evaporated milk

3 large egg yolks

8 Tbsp. (one stick) unsalted butter (cut into small pieces)

11/2 cups flaked, sweetened coconut

11/2 cups chopped pecans

Combine sugar, evaporated milk, egg yolks and butter in saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until thick and bubbling. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 more minutes.

Remove from heat and add coconut and pecans. Let cool until spreadable.

Where they are now

Some crew changes have occurred at Fire Station 18 since last Thanksgiving. Three firefighters have been promoted. Kelly Knobloch now is a lieutenant at the station on East Rundberg Lane. Tyler Eads is now a driver at the station on South Congress Avenue in the Travis Heights neighborhood. Bryan Kohler is now a driver, but works a different shift at Station 18. Lt. Wayne Parrish and firefighters Brian Oehler, Chris Throop, Isaac Rodriguez, Gavin Finlay and Tim Vandermeer still work the 'A' shift at Station 18. Mayo remains on the 'C' shift.