Flash in the Pan 

Behind the lines: fire camp food

My answering machine delivered an unexpected message from an old friend. “Beep. [Chef Boy] Ari, this is Silos. I’m at a fire camp east of Clinton. Come visit if you want.”

Wow. Good ol’ Silos, farming mentor from my glory days in Vermont. Now he’s fighting fires. Silos taught me how to milk a cow, slaughter a chicken, drive a tractor. He also taught me a limerick that explains why so many kids, including myself, are born in late spring. In summer when it’s hot and sticky, he would say, that’s no time for dunkin’ dicky. But when the frost is on the pumpkin, that’s the time for dicky dunkin’.

I hit the road for the Beavertail State Park fire camp, population 1,184. When I got there, I headed for the food tent. That’s where I found Silos.

The menu board advertised pork chops with mushroom gravy, mixed vegetables, rice, a “non-meat protein dish” of veggie-bean-cheese casserole, and lemon meringue pie for dessert. The salad bar was long and diverse with the usual suspects, as well as pepper-stuffed green olives, a tomato and broccoli salad and pickled jalapeno slices. Spreads like this comprise the firefighter’s daily intake of about 8,000 calories—on par with marathon runners. You need that kind of energy when you spend your days walking up and down steep hills, digging and sawing.

You could argue that the cooks have it easy—after all, hunger is the best sauce, and after a day on the fire lines, the troops are so hungry they’d probably eat anything. On the other hand, meals are one of the bright spots in their long day, and it’s a crucial opportunity to boost morale. Most people agree that Blaggs Catering, of Redding, Calif., pulls it off quite well, with lots of juicy extras, like hand-cut prime rib on Sundays. Meanwhile, Chef Boy Ari could only drool at the equipment—customized tractor-trailers fitted with gas stoves, refrigerators, sinks, serving windows and everything else needed to crank out the goods.

I sat with Silos at a table of Vermonters. Sam Cross, a burly, dreadlocked vegetarian from Underhill, claimed he had no problem getting his fill without meat. “The eggplant parmesan the other day was fantastic,” he said, “and the fakin’ bacon in today’s lunch burrito was pretty good, too.”

It was a short but sweet visit with my old buddy, who bid me farewell and retired to his tent. I took my leave from the Vermont table, got a plate of food and sat down at a table populated by two men.

As I was cutting into my pork chop, one of them, Jeff Lalio, offered me the salt, and then he offered me the pepper. He had a small head, shiny black hair and sincere eyes behind his large, two-toned glasses.

“Where are you guys from?” I asked.

“New Mexico. We’re goin’ home tomorrow.”

“Congratulations,” I said, “what do you look forward to eating when you get home?”

“I’m looking forward to some sheep and corn stew,” said Lalio, “and bread, baked in a round mud oven.”

I asked, “Are you guys Pueblo Indians?”

“Zuni.”

Related to the Pueblos, but with a distinct language, the Zunis are considered descendents of the Anasazi. Zuni Pueblo was the Spaniards’ first stop on their infamous search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Today, many of the 17,000 Zuni are seasonal firefighters, battling wildfire in the Southwest in spring until the monsoon rains take over, at which point they head north. Zuni Pueblo even has its own Hot Shot fire crew. Last spring, Zuni firefighters went to Texas to pick up the pieces of the Columbia Space Shuttle.

Lalio and Wesley Quam—the other guy at the table—spoke to each other in Zuni as they put pieces of leftover food from their plates into a Styrofoam cup.

“We do lots of praying,” explained Quam. “Around here, you have to do a lot of praying.” His cap was embroidered with purple feathers.

“Every morning,” Lalio elaborated, “before we go out on the line, we offer food to the river, and we pray for our safety, and for yours, and for everyone in the whole camp, and for the whole world. Sometimes the bus driver joins us. A lot of the white guys at the camp like having us around. They say we make them feel safe.”

“We also use corn meal when we pray,” said Lalio, “and if people ask, we give them some. We all have our own corn meal. But if somebody doesn’t have it, we share.”

Ishamate, said Quam, “always.”

I put my last piece of pork chop in the prayer cup. I shook their hands and thanked them for their hard work and good wishes.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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