John Tipton Jr. keeps things simple when he cooks.
He might have quick enchiladas one night, slow-cooked stew another night, fried chicken another night.
Simplicity is vital for John. There’s no telling when the people he’s cooking for must drop everything to fight a fire.
“Around here, we kind of like quick meals,” said John, an assistant Muskogee fire chief. “If we have a run in the middle of (cooking a meal), we can turn it off, go on run, turn it back on without messing it up.”
John has been with the Muskogee Fire Department for 35 years. He’s been cooking for fellow firefighters for almost that long.
He said the late Fire Captain Roger Glen Folsom showed him the keys to firehouse cooking.
“When I first started cooking with him, he’d take four pounds of bacon and just throw that whole slab in the skillet,” John said. “I had always watched my mom do it and she’d cook a couple of strips at a time. But he (Folsom) said ‘just watch.’”
He said he watched the captain every time he cooked.
“After a while, he let me help him do it,” John said.
Through the years, John developed the technique he says keeps his crew satisfied — “K.I.S.S., Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
“When you’re feeding eight, nine, 10 guys, you cook something most of them don’t complain about,” John said.
Muskogee firefighters spend 24-hour shifts at each fire station, he said. They work 24 at the station, then they’re off 48 hours.
“You don’t always work there, you live there,” he said. “It’s our home. We spend a third of our lives here.”
John said one of his popular dishes is enchiladas, made with Santa Fe tortillas, El Paso seasoning and mix, plus other name-brand products.
“I don’t use the cheap stuff at all,” John said. “Some of these guys say ‘you save 50 cents by using the cheaper stuff,’ but I made too many enchiladas using Best Buy tomato sauces and they were horrible. That stuff is as bland as it can be.”
He said he likes Santa Fe tortillas because “they’re thicker, they’ve got more flavor and it seems like they’re always moister.”
John starts by browning 6 1/2 pounds of ground beef in a 15-inch skillet.
“It serves eight people,” he said, adding that there are “usually maybe one or two enchiladas left.”
He makes sure the beef is evenly browned.
“You keep stirring it every once in a while,” he said. “I keep stirring until all the red is gone. Keep a good eye on it. You don’t want to let it burn.”
After draining the beef, he puts in the enchilada sauce and lets it simmer for a while. If you skip simmering in the sauce, the meat won’t have any flavor, he said.
John then wraps most of the meat in the warmed tortillas.
“You can either leave the ends open or fold them over,” he said.
With the stuffed tortillas nestled on a cookie sheet, John tops them with the remaining meat, then lays on the cheese.
“Some guys use all the meat inside the tortillas, then get a can of enchilada sauce,” he said. “It’s super dry.”
He said he always lays the cheese on top of the enchiladas, never inside.
“That way, if somebody’s not a big cheese person, they can actually scrape it off,” he said.
Another firehouse favorite is fried chicken.
“The key to cutting chicken is to get it at the joint,” he said. “Bend the leg over and feel the joint.”
John makes sure to fry the chicken in a cast iron skillet.
“Seems like the flavor’s a lot better that way, more even, he said. “I always make plenty.”
He and the station’s 15-inch cast iron skillet go back a long way.
“It’s been here longer than I have,” he said. “I’ve been here 35 years and it was here when I got here.”
He knows to heat the skillet up before cooking things like scrambled eggs. Those who start cooking the eggs in a cold skillet end up scraping the skillet for a long time after serving.
John also puts the station’s roaster to use.
“I get a couple of roasts, put those in there, put in potatoes, carrots, onions, let that cook all day,” he said. “Let it simmer all day. Roast it on high for a few hours, then cook it on medium. We cook stew in the roaster, goulash. If we have a run, we don’t have to worry about it, just turn the oven off.”
John doesn’t use recipes. However, years of watching his mother and his captain cook gave him several tips.
For example, a good, sharp knife is crucial, he said.
“If you get the knife razor sharp, you don’t have to put much pressure on it,” he said. “If you get a knife that’s dull and let it slip you can get your fingers.”
In another example, he always flours his roast before browning.
“Cooking gravy takes a little bit of practice,” he said, adding that some people do it wrong.
“They’d take the grease, put a little bit of flour in there and mix it all up and put the milk in immediately instead of browning the flour,” he said. “You end up with flour tasting gravy. I always make sure mine is kind of golden brown.”