At this busy Atlanta fire station, every day feels like Thanksgiving

Credit: Capt. Chip Newell

Credit: Capt. Chip Newell

There are a couple of reasons why Thanksgiving dinner at Atlanta Fire Station 4 will be different than the stereotypical holiday meal.

First, the firefighters who started their shift at the Edgewood Avenue station this morning don’t know what they’ll be eating. Second, they’re actually looking forward to gathering for dinner at their long kitchen table.

The tight-knit group is confident the food will be good and the company will be enjoyable. Who wouldn’t want the same at Thanksgiving?

To uncover Squad 4′s secret to great family-style dining, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a dining critic to investigate. After sampling the Cajun butter-marinated smoked chicken and balsamic-glazed green beans, they’re lucky I didn’t defect for a career fighting fires.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Because Squad 4 has built a routine that includes a nightly family-style meal, nearly every day here has a Thanksgiving vibe. Thursday might be busier than usual, though, as Thanksgiving seems to inspire ill-advised novice attempts at frying whole turkeys.

“Yeah, it always feels like Thanksgiving. You’ve got the big table, the crazy uncle. Well, you’ve got a few crazy uncles,” quipped Capt. Frederick “Chip” Newell. “It’s just like a family. A family that sits down at the dinner table every night is going to be closer than a family that doesn’t. It’s the same with our firefighters.”

Mealtime at Station 4 usually involves 10 or 12 firefighters. They don’t mind that the seating is donated office chairs, and agree that eating together is more important than what’s actually on the menu.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

“We usually just buy whatever’s on sale,” Newell said.

Anyone with different preferences or dietary restrictions will bring their own personal dishes. During the AJC’s recent visit, beautifully smoked chickens were complemented by the Conecuh sausages one firefighter brought. Another, who was training for a triathlon, brought steamed cauliflower and kale.

Lt. Ryan Sims is the station’s unquestioned pitmaster. He injected his marinade into the chickens before they spent several hours in a box smoker at 275 degrees. The resulting birds were juicy, tender and perfectly smoky.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Firefighter Chris Hunter serves as the squad’s main cook on many nights. In a previous career, Hunter worked in the well-regarded kitchen of 8Arm, the Ponce de Leon restaurant that closed earlier this year. Hunter’s skill was on display as he expertly tossed green beans with a large knob of butter in a gigantic cast iron skillet.

Clean-up falls to the rookies, and they take just as much pride in their tasks as the cooks take in theirs. Newell said the newer firefighters tasked with cleaning the kitchen “would probably fight you if you tried to help them.”

Credit: Capt. Chip Newell

Credit: Capt. Chip Newell

Logistically, Hunter said he plans his cooking using the rule of thumb that each firefighter will eat about half a pound of meat and at least two servings of each side. He also recommended cooking main dishes low and slow. Forgiving cooking methods like smoking, braising or slow-roasting helps prevent dishes from being ruined if the crew gets a call and needs to put dinner on hold.

Station 4, on Edgewood Avenue, stays busy thanks to its central location and easy highway access. Car wrecks, fires and medical emergencies have ruined more than a handful of dinners, Hunter said.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

When it comes to dinner table conversation, Newell says no topics are off-limits, and politics came up more than once during the AJC’s recent visit, as Georgia’s midterm election votes were still being tallied.

While there was plenty of banter, discussion and cross-talk at the Station 4 dinner table, the closeness of the group was best observed when things fell quiet. The firefighters, from a diverse range of backgrounds, seemed totally at ease when the conversation dropped off. When talk resumed, its flow was natural and casual and dinner felt wonderfully free of tension.

“The first thing we ask when we get a new guy in,” Newell said, “is, ‘Can you cook?’”