Behind the scenes at a fire camp kitchen

El Cariso Hotshots
El Cariso Hotshots, around 1972

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes as meals are being prepared by the catering services that provide food for firefighters on large wildland fires?

A journalist from the southern United States drove to Oregon in 2019 to embed with one of the 16 companies that run 29 federally contracted mobile food-service units specializing in fire-camp cuisine. He was hoping to get an inside look at what it was like to work at fire camp.

Jeff Winkler had previous experience working in “slop joints, shopping-center fusion, hippie shacks, and fine dining.” His current occupation, according to The Atlantic which published his long-form article about his adventure, is working as a trash collector back in the South.

During his 19 days feeding firefighters on the South Fire west of Red Bluff in Northern California, Mr. Winkler started in “freight” unloading deliveries from the Sysco semi that dropped off supplies, churning out hundreds of sack lunches assembly-line-style in the semi reefer, deep cleaning, and odd jobs. He described it as “soul-suckingly monotonous”, but after two days he moved up to the kitchen to work for Ruby, the head cook. On his 18th day he found himself in the head cook position.

Here are some excerpts:

Ruby and her second-in-command, Josie, a petite collegiate blonde not a day over 22, were scrambling. For Josie, it was literal. She was quietly pouring bags of yellow liquid egg into a tilt skillet and stirring the soup into a solid using a three-foot-long stainless-steel paddle.

Tilt Skillet
Tilt Skillet

The ovens, I was told, were on the fritz, so Ruby had me drop bacon into the deep fryers.

It didn’t take me long to understand that we were cooking stomach anchors, not taste-bud tinglers. Instead of foie gras and bordelaise, our crew made large batches of heavy sustenance: things such as well-done chicken, powdered potatoes, instant gravy. Canned veggies were heated and dressed in brown sugar and spices. The liquid for Josie’s scrambled eggs came in 20-pound bags, and deep-frying bacon was an hour-long process. This was high-volume catering. The situation, and the contract, demanded it.

The Overhead Boomers were always the first to eat. Their impatience when waiting for us to open for service is a running joke among disaster catering crews. They also ate like picky children: “Nah, I don’t want no vegetables.” Almost all of the young bright-eyed Cs [California Conservation Corps] accepted their plates and ate like college freshmen. We got to know who the vegetarians were, and had their plates ready in advance.

Before the day-13 dinner rush, we’d made the steaks and shipped them out to spike camp but, for whatever reason, had forgotten to package up an entire batch. I found the deep-sixed pan of cooked steaks cooling in one of the fritzed ovens just a little after dinner service had started.

Check out the entire article at The Atlantic.

South Fire California
Spike Camp on the South Fire, September 12, 2019. InciWeb.
South Fire California
South Fire, September 12, 2019. Inciweb.