Braising in the Ammo Box at Firehouse No. 8

Any firehouse is a mix of strict rules and, well—guys hanging out in droopy gym shorts, doing chores or watching TV, waiting for the alarm and the orderly scramble to the truck. Firehouse No. 8, in Oakland, California’s Temescal neighborhood, adds another element to the mix: great food. At least when Kevin Kennedy is braising meat in the ammo box.

Kennedy is one of eight firefighters on Shift B (a shift lasts 24 hours, from 8 a.m. one day till 8 a.m. the next). The guys (there are no women on Firehouse 8's regular crew) call it the ammo box—it's made of heavy-gauge aluminum and has a close-fitting lid. But while it was made for the U.S. military in the Vietnam era, it was never intended to hold ordnance (the WearEver company began manufacturing institutional cookware for the Army in 1941). Ten years ago, Kennedy found the abandoned ammo box in a cupboard at Firehouse 8. Now he uses it every week, during his month-long cooking stints (the guys take turns). “It’s an amazing pan,” Kennedy says. “You just put stuff in, close the lid, and everything turns out great.”

It’s slightly more complicated than that. Last week, Kennedy cooked short ribs for the guys: seared them in the ammo box, tossed in chopped onions, leeks, and stock, then clamped down the lid and hoisted the box into a low oven for 3 1/2 hours, when the succulent meat fibers were slipping off the bones. He served them with gravy made from the braising liquid, mashed mixed sweet potatoes and russets, and spinach salad.

By now, the ammo box has almost mythical powers with the guys of Shift B. “That box has been to Guadalcanal,” says firefighter Jim Whitty, as Kennedy adds a handful of parsley to the ribs, “to Peleliu….”

“Actually, Jimmy was conceived in that box,” says Kenny Ergun. “He was born in that box.” Whitty jabs him in the gut.

But Kennedy is serious. “Food that was cooked in there 30 years ago imparted its flavor to that box,” he says, not long before the dinner bell rings.

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com (scroll down for captions)

1. Firehouse No. 8's hook-and-ladder. 2. Old-school system of numbered-and-lettered coordinates for locating streets. 3. Kevin Kennedy at the stoves. 4. The ammo box emerges. 5. The meat’s fall-off-the-bone tender. 6. "1967" stamped on the ammo box lid. 7. The range doubles as a buffet. 8. Home-cured olives from trees in firefighter Kenny Ergun’s backyard. 9. Quick-pickled onions in the salad dressing. 10. Firehouse 8 in an earlier era. 11. Lieutenant Jeff Haughy tosses the salad in a stock pot. 12. Kevin Kennedy's handiwork. 13. The foosball table sees a lot of action. 14. Parsley and chives as garnish. 15. The guys of Shift B (clockwise from left): Gerald Gallardo, Chris O’Brien, Kevin Kennedy, Lieutenant Jeff Haughy, Captain Lawrence Hom, Steve Chew, Kenny Ergun, Jim Whitty.