As you know, firefighters spend a great deal of their time at the firehouse standing ready in case a fire breaks out. During these shifts, they have to eat so there’s usually a designated cook who’s chosen by the company to prepare meals for all of the firefighters. Most firehouse food is simple fare, and firefighters often complain that it doesn’t send their taste buds into ecstasy.
Back in the 1970s, it was common for firefighters to pull long shifts for 10 straight days followed by several days off. This gave them an opportunity to supplement their income with part-time work. At about the same time, we were getting the word out about our grills mainly through in-store demonstrations. That meant we were always on the lookout for qualified people who could capably demonstrate our grills. You see, we couldn’t send just anyone to demonstrate our products at an important customer’s store. A demonstrator had to be taught a sales pitch and how to use our products properly. They needed to know barbecue basics including food safety and fire safety. The last skill, fire safety, led me to an unusual, but highly effective way to recruit demonstrators. That’s where my trusty Weber kettle came into play.
I would drive up to a firehouse, remove a shiny, fire-engine red Weber charcoal kettle grill from my car (sadly we don’t make red grills any longer for environmental reasons), wheel it up to the firehouse, and go find whoever was in charge. After finding the usually suspicious watch commander, I would volunteer to cook a turkey for the firefighters and leave the grill behind for the company’s use. Watch commanders would generally think I was insane, but the prospect of a tasty meal of roast turkey, and a grill-roasted turkey at that, would usually get them to agree to let me do it. After all, they certainly didn’t have to worry about putting out a charcoal fire if things got out of hand and I incinerated the turkey.
Thirteen-pound turkeys were my bird of choice. An unstuffed 13-pounder takes about two and a half hours to cook after about a half hour of preparation and fire starting. I’d begin the event by lighting the charcoal while engaging the firefighters in stories of folks who didn’t follow lighting instructions and some of the crazy things that could happen. I invariably would hear about someone in their district that had made the mistake of using gasoline or another forbidden fire starter and had managed to set a dry lawn or a wooden deck on fire. We would discuss ways of teaching fire safety around the grill and during this exchange, I could determine the best storytellers and those comfortable speaking with a stranger. It’s important to have both of these talents if you’re going to be a grill demonstrator.
While the briquettes were getting to that point where they’re mostly ash gray and glowing (about 25 minutes), I would prepare the turkey usually placing a couple of sticks of butter in the cavity along with a bay leaf or two and some poultry seasoning. I would baste the outside of the turkey with peanut oil, to help it roast to that golden brown Norman-Rockwell-Thanksgiving turkey color.
During the food preparation part of my little exhibition, it usually became apparent which firefighter did the cooking and was comfortable talking about food preparation. So by the time the bird was placed on the grill, I had a pretty good idea if there were candidates that I would like to recruit as Weber demonstrators.
While the bird was cooking someone would get around to asking why Weber would send somebody like me out to cook a turkey and give away a grill. I’d explain that we needed demonstrators who could set up a Weber charcoal grill for indirect cooking, safely light a fire, prepare a turkey for roasting, and then talk about the grill while the turkey was cooking. Since they had just witnessed a guy show up from nowhere and do it, they knew it was pretty much a no-brainer. I’d also explain that they could earn themselves a daily fee and that they would also receive a discount on the purchase of a Weber grill for their own use. Usually three or four firefighters applied for the job right on the spot.
The only thing that would get in the way of my recruiting effort was a fire alarm. One such time I was in the middle of a firehouse recruiting session in Des Moines, Iowa. I had been working with a firefighter who was a natural for the job. He could tell a story, he was the firehouse cook, and he needed some culinary help with his job. His name was Stewart Leathers but his nickname was Shoe Leather Stu, which I took to be a jab at his way of cooking firehouse steaks. Stu cooked steaks in a cast-iron skillet on the firehouse range top. I was just at the point of recruiting Stu when bells went off and everyone scrambled into the firehouse, slid into their gear, stomped into their boots, and jumped onto fire trucks. My prospective demonstrator and his contingent roared away with sirens blaring and lights flashing.
About two hours later, back they came grinning and in a mischievous mood. After peeling off their gear and washing away the smoke, they assembled near my grill to present a scorched leather saddle to Stu. You see, a horse barn had caught fire and was badly damaged, but fortunately not a person nor horse was injured. One of the firefighters brought back a horribly scorched saddle as a trophy for Shoe Leather Stu and made a raucous speech about it being more eatable than Stu’s firehouse cuisine. Everyone laughed, but it lit a fire under poor Stu.
During the scorched saddle ceremony, I had removed the turkey from the grill and let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving. Everyone raved about how juicy and flavorful it turned out and they quickly reduced the bird to bones. No one asked more questions about how I grilled it than Stewart. Before my firehouse visit ended Stewart and two of his fellow firefighters signed up to demonstrate our grills.
A couple of months went by and I spoke to Stewart by phone several times giving him instruction on cooking steaks, hamburgers, chicken pieces, pork chops, and even fish fillets on the firehouse kettle I’d left behind. It was obvious that he had turned from Shoe Leather Stu to a firehouse grilling maestro.
Three months after my recruiting session, I was back in Des Moines for a demonstrator training session. Stewart was there learning how to sell grills. After the training session, he invited me back to the firehouse where I was greeted with several air-horn blasts from the now happily fed company. Stewart’s former nickname of Shoe Leather Stu had been changed to Stupendous Griller.
Stewart went on to be one of our best demonstrators in the nation and, when he retired from firefighting, he successfully competed in many regional barbecuing contests. In a conversation many years after our first meeting, he told me that every Thanksgiving after tasting my firehouse turkey, he cooked his family’s holiday turkey on a Weber® grill.
If your cooking doesn’t inspire the company around your house, fire up your grill and add flavor and fun to an ordinary meal. You may never get to jump on a fire truck and put out a fire, but you just may earn yourself a nickname you’ll be proud to add to an apron.