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Napa Firehouse Cookbook, 1964-1974 “The Sight of 27 Grown Men Cooking Their Own Meals”


Carol Bray must have been that rare individual with the curiosity and the imagination, as well as the discipline, to memorialize forever a slice of her life. That slice is as richly pitted with anecdote and humor as any Christmas pudding. Whom of us recognizes that we are living in a golden age of our life and that we should celebrate the people who are sharing it with us? How many times do we look back and ask why didn’t I write a book about this? Why didn’t I record this important time of life?

Most historians have been men that have mostly written about men. In Napa, amazingly two women became historians due to their admiration of firefighters. Rita Bordwell wrote the first history of the Napa Fire Department, covering the years between l859 to l962. The second is the Napa Firehouse Cookbook, 1964-1974, edited by Carol Bray and illustrated by Richard Rains.

“When I first went to work for the fire department, I was amazed at the sight of 27 grown men cooking their own meals… The men had a vegetable garden outside the station, until the city, in its wisdom, chopped down the old peach tree and paved the garden to make still another parking lot,” Bray, who worked for the Napa Fire Department for a decade, recalls.

In Bray’s book, you will find more than recipes. Tucked within the pages are other gems such as the requirements necessary to become a firefighter (at that time you had to be male; the first woman was hired in 1985), how to make a sour cherry pie, or how to cut a flank steak.

Lee Mitchell remembers, “I’m a retired Battalion Chief from the Napa Fire Department… Many of us old timers knew Rita Bordwell. When I was first hired by the City of Napa in 1965 she used to stop by for a visit with the ‘fire laddies.’ She always had a story to tell and would remind us that her father was one of the original volunteer firefighters on the Pioneer Engine Company here in Napa in the late 1800s.” There was a picture of her in one of the display cases at the Firefighter Museum.

When Bray decided to create a cookbook, Rita Bordwell was still alive; she lived from 1885 to 1975. Bray describes Bordwell as, “A tiny lady, usually attired in red with a large floppy hat setting off her outfit, like some other things that come in small packages, Rita packed a wallop. She was one of the two women honorary members of the Firefighters Association.” She included Bordwell’s recipe for a Lemon Angel pie in the book.

Retired Captain Bob Foley explained how Bordwell organized the Firefighter Museum, “She shamed the guys into getting their photos for us.” In her own hand, she inscribed the names of all the firefighters on the backs of the 589 photographs she collected.

Captain Foley leafed through drawers and handed her that history. Bordwell told stories of early Napa, before 1859, when the only resources to fight fires were wells and pumps, “Women and girls pumped, men passed the buckets.” In 1859 the first volunteer fire company was founded, and by 1873 the Napa Hook and Ladder Company had been added. Bordwell described the vaudeville shows held at Napa High to raise funds for the volunteers, and the New Year’s Balls held at the Opera House, where the Napa Band played until midnight, when they broke for refreshments and then danced until 5 a.m. She remembered her father Charles Harren who served between 1884 and 1886. He was injured by a falling burning wall and resigned at the request of his wife—but he never missed a fire as long as he lived. Bordwell had a picture of her father in his uniform holding the bugle which was used to call “the boys” together.

Because of Bray and Bordwell’s dedication to history, a written record of the Fire Department, as well as a collection of stories about the firefighters who worked in Napa between 1964 and 1974 now exist. It is valuable to note that in the early seventies, Carol Bray felt that she was treated chivalrously yet also “like one of the guys” in the best possible way. As the only woman in the firehouse, she seems to have had the time of her life. We are guessing that she was smart, funny and kind.

Bray carefully captured each firefighter’s story and each recipe, making each significant and humorous. As journalist Tove Danovich has noted, “A person’s favorite recipe can shed light on who they are, where they come from, how they view life.” In this era, some women had the imagination to describe the world around them, teasing out a story of reverse gender stereotypes through a documentation of these very strong men doing non-traditional work.

This book begins with this, “We know that firefighting is the most hazardous occupation in the country. Could this have anything to do with the fact that firemen are often their own cooks? With this thought in mind, Bon Appetit!”

Some of the recipes include: Worst Shephard’s Pie, Luce’s Pumpkin Pie with Garlic Crust, Gourley’s Chop Suey, Nance’s Really Rotten Hamburgers, Rains’ Indian Bread and Barstad’s Continuing Stuffed Pork Chops.

Bray began compiling the recipes to leave something behind, and wrote, “I enjoyed the ten years with the fire department… where else could a person work, get a dozen red roses and big cake from the male chauvinists for your birthday, as well as eight assorted bottles of wine, besides a world of sweet talk, free coffee, and an occasional lunch year-round. In those days the men paid $10 a month or a dollar a day to eat at the firehouse.”

When Bray left her job at the fire station, a “So Long Party!” was held for her at The Grapevine Inn on June 28, 1974. There is a cartoon of the “Final Bray Family Fling” at Conn Dam, and Bray asks us to think of her, “The next time you are lifting that glass of good old Napa Valley wine.”

This story is dedicated with respect to the memory of Garrett Paiz and Cory Iverson, who died in 2017 fighting the wildfires in California.

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