What do a grill-roasted turkey and a house full of firefighters have in common? Both can be great ways to share the joy of grilling.
See, firefighters spend a lot of time between alarms at the firehouse, where a designated cook keeps the troops fed. Firehouse food is often less than tantalizing, so when I was recruiting grill peddlers back in the 1970s, these hungry heroes made attentive candidates.
In my early Weber days, my job was to set up grilling demonstrations in retail stores across the nation. Our demos had gotten so popular that I often found myself scrambling for part-timers who could make a sales pitch while demonstrating our grills.
Equipped with my trusty Weber kettle, I came up with an unusual but highly effective way to recruit people with a good grip on barbecue basics, including fire safety.
At the time, firefighters typically worked long shifts for 10 straight days, then had several days off. In this downtime, many picked up odd jobs to supplement their income. So I would drive up to a firehouse, remove a shiny, fire-engine red Weber charcoal kettle grill from my car, wheel it up to the firehouse, and go find whoever was in charge (if they hadn’t already appeared to chase me off the property).
After finding the usually suspicious watch commander, I would volunteer to cook a turkey for the crew and leave the grill behind for their use. I was generally regarded as insane, but the prospect of a tasty meal usually earned me the green light. After all, if there were any unintended pyrotechnics, they could handle it.
As I lit the charcoal, I’d tell the firefighters stories about folks who didn’t follow lighting instructions and some of the crazy things that could happen. I’d invariably hear about someone in their district who had used gasoline or another forbidden fire starter and unintentionally torched a lawn or deck.
While we discussed ways of teaching fire safety, I could easily identify the natural storytellers and those comfortable speaking with a stranger—two important qualities for a grill demonstrator.
While the briquets were ashing over, I’d prepare the turkey, usually placing a stick of butter in the cavity along with a bay leaf or two and some poultry seasoning. As the turkey roasted to a golden brown, I’d baste the outside of it with peanut oil.
While the turkey was cooking, someone would ask why Weber had sent 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 all of this, they knew it was pretty much a no-brainer. When I explained that they could earn a daily fee doing it, three or four firefighters usually applied for the job right on the spot.
The only thing that ever sidelined my recruiting efforts was a fire alarm. One such time I was in Des Moines, Iowa, chatting up 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, obviously a jab at his firehouse steaks, which he cooked in a cast-iron skillet on the stove. I was just at the point of recruiting Stu when bells went off and the men—Stu included—scrambled into their gear, jumped onto fire trucks, and roared off.
About two hours later, they returned, grinning and…mischievous. Evidently they had just answered a call at a burning horse barn. Fortunately, no one was injured, but one of the firefighters had picked up a horribly scorched saddle as a trophy.
Now, after washing off the smoke, they assembled near my grill to present it to Shoe-Leather. There was a raucous speech about the saddle being more edible than Stu’s firehouse cuisine and everyone laughed. But it lit a fire under poor Stu.
The turkey was ready just as the “ceremony” ended. Everyone raved about how juicy and flavorful it was, and quickly reduced the bird to bones. No one asked more questions about how to grill a turkey than Stu. Before my firehouse visit ended, Stu and two other firefighters had signed up to demonstrate our grills.
Over the next three months I spoke to Stu by phone several times, instructing him on grilling steaks, hamburgers, chicken pieces, pork chops, and even fish fillets on the kettle grill I’d left behind. When I returned to Des Moines for the official demonstrator training session, Stu was there learning how to sell grills.
After the session, he invited me back to the firehouse, where I was greeted with several air-horn blasts from the now happily fed company. Stu’s former nickname of Shoe-Leather had been changed to Stupendous Griller.
If your cooking doesn’t inspire the company around your house, maybe it’s time to fire up the grill. 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.