What if the family at the meal is not a Rockwellian assembly of Mom, Dad and their 2.5 freckle-faced kids? Sometimes family is where you find it...

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At least once a year it seems we hear about the importance of the family meal. Study after study shows that families who dine together shine together. They enjoy better nutrition, better communication; and their kids are less likely to partake in high-risk behaviors. Those of us who don’t enjoy family meals regularly might be doomed to face all sorts of risks that those families don’t.

So what if the family at the meal is not a Rockwellian assembly of Mom, Dad and their 2.5 freckle-faced kids? Sometimes family is where you find it, what you make it. And family meals — even with makeshift families — are bound to be better for us than eating alone. Breaking bread together, we affirm our commitment to treat one another with respect; and having done so, we’re more likely to look out for each other when the going gets rough.

For years, I cooked — and ate — with a series of restaurant crews whose lives seemed as intertwined with mine as the lives of my own brothers and sisters. And I know I wasn’t alone. A lot of restaurants call the staff dinner a family meal. But restaurants are not the only places where co-workers’ economic, social and domestic entanglements rival the connections that bind the members of “real” families. Whenever and wherever co-workers eat together, family meals happen.

Recently, I had an opportunity to join some firefighters when they sat down to dinner at Fire Station 6 on Evergreen Way in South Everett. Because firefighters and emergency medical workers are on duty 24 hours at a stretch, the fire stations provide kitchens, and the crews do all their own meal planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning. It might be worth noting that they pay for it out of pocket, too.

I probably would never have had an opportunity to experience firehouse fare for myself if not for my old friend Todd Schlemmer. In the early 1980s, he and I belonged to the same “family” at Dos Padres Mexican Restaurant in Bellingham. There, most of the crew attended Western Washington University at one time or another. We were a peripatetic bunch, moving in and out of one another’s lives like so many electrons around the warm nucleus of a restaurant kitchen with the promise of a good meal every day — and a paycheck every now and then. It had been seven years or so since I had heard from Schlemmer; at that point he had retired from Microsoft. Now, he had re-entered the workforce as a firefighter, and he thought I might like to join the crew for dinner.

“We aren’t making anything too crazy tomorrow,” he wrote. “We have some local-caught salmon filets donated by the driver on Engine 6 (and complete angler), Phil Smithson. Other items will probably represent a fall harvest-y kind of offering.”

I left downtown Seattle around 4. It was raining on rush-hour traffic, and I didn’t arrive until 5:30, but dinner preparations were still under way. On the stovetop were three pans of apple wedges browning in butter with thick slices of Walla Walla sweet onions. “Those will go with the salmon,” Schlemmer said. The salmon — several brilliantly colored sides of it — were laid out on impromptu “pans” crafted from aluminum foil, ready to be placed on a grill that was preheating outside the back door. The oven was packed with three kinds of root vegetables, slowly roasting to caramel-colored perfection.

“Cooking together, it’s what it’s all about,” one firefighter said. “It’s not like it’s all we ever think about, but it is the first thing we talk about in the morning.”

“One individual — and I’m not naming any names here,” said Schlemmer, “is famous for his blackened steaks.”

“More than once,” said his co-worker, “he’s set off the fire alarm here in the station.”

Just as the salmon went on the grill, the alarm sounded and all the burners on the stove shut themselves off. This had nothing to do with Schlemmer’s cooking. It was a bona fide emergency.

“Gotta run,” said Schlemmer, “but you’re welcome to hang out here with the chief for as long as you can. We might be right back. But there’s no way of knowing.”

So the crew headed out, and I was left behind with Assistant Fire Chief Joe Johnston to mind the salmon. What, I wondered, did it take for my friend to become a firefighter. “Well,” said Johnston, “a thousand guys might take the written test. We’ll invite the top 60 to take the physical agility test and about half of them will fail. So we rate that 30 and conduct interviews of the most likely candidates. Then comes the psychological test. Out of the top five, we hire two.” For the first time, I came to realize just how elite a team of firefighters really is. So when the crew returned after what turned out to be a relatively minor incident, I looked at them with a new level of awe.

The burners were back on, and within minutes salmon came off the grill, vegetables came out of the oven and a stack of plates appeared. Someone set the table with forks and napkins. And Jason Haag, one of the crew, showed up with his infamous dog-killer brownies.

“There’s so much chocolate in these brownies that if a dog eats one, it’ll drop dead,” he explained. Then, as we got details about the emergency dog rescue that took place at Haag’s house when his dog ate one of the brownies, a buffet line of sorts took shape around the kitchen counter, and the crew sat around the table.

“Well, as you can see,” said one of the guys, “the tones can go off at any time. And when they do, we’ve got to run. So the food is not always cooked to perfection, but it’s every bit as delicious.”

Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Thomas James Hurst is a Seattle Times staff photographer.