“Come on in, guys: We’re just about ready to eat!” Scott Mullins, president of Asheville Fire Fighters Local 865, sings out. Before his promotion, he served at Fire Station 6 in West Asheville. But tonight, he’s back to fix dinner and spend time with old friends.
I grew up around fire stations. My father, a volunteer fireman fresh out of high school, later founded a financial company that specializes in financing emergency equipment for volunteer departments all over the Carolinas. Sometimes they’d invite us to stay for dinner or eat out with them. From a young age, I understood that food was important to firefighters and that most were good cooks.
“This is a Myrtle Beach thing,” says Mullins, pulling chicken for his chicken bog. I say I’m suprised that he doesn’t use celery, a traditional component of Myrtle Beach bog. “It’s cheaper without it: That $2 gets you more meat!” he explains, adding, “Every meal for us is typically under or around $5.”
The station doesn’t provide food, nor is there a cafeteria or kitchen ration. Instead, firefighters pool their money and go grocery shopping together. Hence the tradition of good, cheap food. No crab legs or steaks here: It’s more wholesome, hearty stews, soul food and one-pot wonders like chili, chicken casserole or fajitas.
“It’s a hit if it sticks to your ribs,” says Capt. Dana Trantham, “but it’s even better if you can have some leftovers for later.” Chicken bog does both quite well. An eastern North Carolina/coastal South Carolina tradition, bog is as simple as it gets: sausage, chicken and celery mixed in with a massive pot of rice and cooked in chicken stock. Heaped high on a plate and smothered in hot sauce, it makes for a damn fine meal.
Sure enough, however, 10 minutes into dinner, walkie-talkies buzz, the lights all over the station kick on, and everyone jumps into action. “At least chicken bog stays pretty hot!” jokes Mullins. Within three minutes of the signal, the four men are suited up and on the road, sirens blaring, lights glowing.
Firefighters have extremely long shifts, though most of that time is spent waiting for something to happen. “We try to make dinner family time, just sitting around eating together,” Trantham explains. “We’re together every day, just about.” The station is a small, cinder block building, and the cramped bunks are fitted with lights triggered when a late-night call comes in.
Happily, the food doesn’t get too cold this time: Within 30 minutes, they’ve returned from a false alarm at the Moose Cafe. “They burned the biscuits, I guess,” someone jokes, and just as quickly as they left, they’re back around the table, shoveling down spoonfuls of bog and ragging one another like any good family.
Their backgrounds are as varied as the roads they took to firefighting. Matt Hooker hails from San Francisco, Mullins from Ohio by way of Myrtle Beach. Several are locals, including Trantham, Chad Bryson and Jason Worley, who worked construction till he saw that the Fire Department was hiring and decided to apply. “I grew up in this neighborhood back here,” says Matthew Pride, pointing toward the rear of the station.
But protecting the neighborhood that raised him isn’t Pride’s only claim to fame. In 2012, his station enrolled him in the annual Toughman Contest on a dare, and he won all five fights en route to the title. “He’s got the belt to prove it!” Trantham says, laughing.
“We were coming back from a call and saw a billboard for the sign-up,” remembers Pride. “Well, between my loud mouth and my captain, they signed me up.”
A growing need
The Asheville Fire Department’s more than 220 firefighters are spread among the city’s 12 stations, with more than 80 on duty at any given moment. And given Asheville’s rapid growth, that number will only increase. “There’s a lot of people moving here,” notes Mullins, “and that means more job openings on the way.”
Firefighters are the first ones on the scene for almost any 911 call or alarm, whether it’s something as massive as the 2003 Beacon Manufacturing Co. fire in Swannanoa or the 2011 medical office fire that claimed the life of Capt. Jeff Bowen, or as simple as burned biscuits at a restaurant. But when they’re not barreling down the highway, lights blazing, they’re here, at their home away from home.
And if the comics and the silver screen drape their heroes with capes and masks, in the real world they look more like your neighbors, gathered around the kitchen table in T-shirts eating chicken bog and telling stories, waiting for the walkie-talkie’s all-too-familiar buzz.