In Which We Get Started, and Ask the Question "Why Bother?"
How many of the literary events of 1989 do you remember? How about blockbuster culinary trends? Automotive milestones?
If you can come up with only one answer in each category and if they're all the same answer you're no doubt thinking about Manifold Destiny, and you're the reason we've turned up again. Not the only reason: we're also back because we're appalled by the exorbitant prices the two earlier editions of MD command on the Internet, a realm that didn't even exist (except in Al Gore's imagination) when we first put a pork tenderloin under the hood of a Lincoln Town Car. We could, of course, dribble our own supplies of the book out onto the auction and used-and-rare-book Web sites; as retirement plans go, it beats working for a major airline.
But a new generation of readers deserves the right to learn the pleasures of car-engine cooking without spending more than the price of four gallons of gas. And that very issue the inflationary spiral that's put unleaded regular in a price bracket with luxury items such as milk is yet another reason why the world still needs Manifold Destiny. What better way to get every penny of value out of the pump than to make gasoline do two things at once? And think of how much less guilty you'll feel about your automotive contribution to global warming if, to use a lousy metaphor, you're planting two feet at once in the same carbon footprint.
A lot has happened in the car and food worlds since MD debuted back in '89. The hulking Town Car, which we porkily referred to above, seems positively demure by comparison to any of a flotilla of SUVs that have since lumbered down the pike. And as those behemoths have come under attack, new species of automobiles the equivalent of the primitive little furry mammals that dodged the dinosaurs have turned up on the highways. Hybrids are all the rage, and even some hybrid SUVs the automotive version of furry dinosaurs, to stretch the analogy are now galumphing across the landscape, promising wonderful gas mileage if you use them only in the city, where you don't need them in the first place.
Eating, as well as driving, has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Thanks to television channels devoted to nothing but food, we now have celebrity chefs, most of whom cook things that celebrity nutritionists tell us we shouldn't eat, thus feeding America's greatest appetite its appetite for guilt (don't look at us; we did our best to put a whoopee cushion on guilt's stiff-backed chair with The Bad for You Cookbook). We've seen vegetarians turbocharge themselves into vegans, vegans take the next step into raw-foodism, and we've followed (at a respectable distance) the emergence of culinary fads such as deconstruction and molecular gastronomy (in simplest terms, the first consists of plating out B, L, and T instead of a BLT; and the second involves turning things into gelatins and foams when they were perfectly fine in their natural states).
Over the past two decades, we've ridden the MD phenomenon to such heights of fame that it's a wonder paparazzi don't hang around our doorsteps, waiting for us to throw drunken tantrums or forget to use our seat belts. We've been profiled in The New Yorker; made a guest appearance on a live German variety show where we cooked shrimp on the engine of a '56 Caddy while driving around with the mayor of Dortmund and the Caddy's owner, a German Elvis impersonator; fed Eggs-On Cheese Pie (see recipe, page 61) to Katie Couric and Al Roker on the Today show (Al went on his diet right after that); bounced a package of veal scaloppine onto the West Side Highway while doing an interview for CBS News; got excerpted in the Library of America's anthology American Food Writing; and made it to the top of an Internet list of the ten weirdest cookbooks ever, beating out volumes devoted to roadkill, bugs, poison, ketchup, and cooking in the nude.
And to think that it all started in Schwartz's, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal.
Schwartz's is a little storefront delicatessen that cures and smokes its own beef briskets, which it heaps high in the front window partly for display and partly so the countermen can quickly spear and slice them. "Smoked meat" is what Montrealers call this apotheosis of pastrami, and Schwartz's makes the best. You can eat it in the store. You can take it out and eat it at home. Or you may have to eat it on the sidewalk half a block away when the aroma coming through the butcher paper drives you nuts. What we had in mind, one summer's day in 1984, was to pack some in the car for a rest-stop picnic on our way back to Boston.
We were barely out of Montreal when we started to talk about what a shame it was that our pound of Schwartz's wouldn't be so alluringly hot when we pulled over for lunch. When you order this stuff the way Montreal insiders do "easy on the lean" room temperature just doesn't do it justice.
It was then that the idea hit. One of us remembered stories we used to hear thirty years ago about lonely truckers cooking hot dogs and beans on their engines. Why not Schwartz's smoked meat? It wouldn't even be cooking it Schwartz had already done that but just borrowing a little heat from the engine to warm it up. So we decided, what the hell; if it worked for teamsters, why not us?
We pulled off the interstate in Burlington, Vermont, bought a roll of aluminum foil, and triple-wrapped the sliced brisket. Opening the hood, we spied a nice little spot under the air filter of the '84 VW Rabbit we were driving, which seemed the perfect place to tuck in the package, and off we went. An hour later, we arrived at a standard-issue Vermont highway rest stop, the kind that looks like they wash the trees, and voilà in minutes we were putting away hot smoked-meat sandwiches that actually had steam rising off them. Best of all, we nearly made two women at the next picnic table choke on their sprouts when they saw that instead of a busted fan belt, we had just dragged our lunch from the Rabbit's greasy maw.
Necessity, to rewrite the old chestnut, is the mother of necessary inventions like ways to heat smoked meat when you don't have a steam table handy. But since inspired foolishness is the real hallmark of civilization, it wasn't long before we were inventing necessities. For instance, a dire need to roast a pork tenderloin on IÂ€‘95 between Philadelphia and Providence. Car engines, we discovered, are good for a lot more than simply heating things up.
Soon we were calling each other with news of our latest accomplishments:
"I poached a fillet of sole."
"I roasted a stuffed eggplant."
"I figured out how to do game hens."
"I made stuffed wieners."
Before long, those rest-stop stares of disbelief had been replaced by reactions infinitely more delightful to savor like that of the toll collector who swore she smelled garlic but couldn't figure out where the hell it was coming from.
What we didn't realize, during those early years of random experimentation, was that our burgeoning skills as car-engine cooks were going to serve us splendidly as we competed in one of the most grueling sporting events on the planet: the 1988 Cannonball One Lap of America rally. The One Lap was an eight-thousand-plus-mile highway marathon seven days of nonstop driving in which participants had to adhere to strict rules while reeking of spilled coffee and unchanged underwear. It might have been the most exhausting and disorienting event anyone ever paid money to enter, but it made you feel like a kid with nothing to do except ride his bike in the park for a week with no grown-ups around. It was so much fun, in fact, that the grown-ups eventually took over. The current version is a lot more serious, involving time trials at actual racetracks, and the entrants who still have to drive back and forth across the country in eight days now have to be either pro racers or graduates of driving schools. Back in '88, they'd let anybody in, which accounted for us.
It was damned difficult to stick to the rally routes and get anything decent to eat. Most of our fellow competitors followed a regimen of truck-stop breakfasts (not necessarily eaten at breakfast time) and assorted pack-along calories drawn from the canned and bottled food groups. Our wonderful epiphany, shared by none of the other fifty-seven teams in the event, was that if we cooked on the big V8 under the hood of our sponsor's stretched Lincoln Town Car, we could eat like epicures without screwing up our time and distance factors.
Here's what we did. Two days before the rally started in Detroit, we worked out a menu and did our shopping. Then we commandeered the kitchen of our friend Marty Kohn, a feature writer for the Detroit Free Press, and put together enough uncooked entrées to last us at least all the way to our midway layover in Los Angeles. Boneless chicken breasts with prosciutto and provolone, fillet of flounder, a whole pork tenderloin, a ham steak (a reversion to our simple heat-through days) everything was seasoned, stuffed, and splashed according to our own recipes, sealed up tightly in three layers of aluminum foil, and promptly frozen. We felt like we were turning Marty's kitchen into a tiny suburban version of those factories where they made airplane food, back when airplanes still had food.
The next day, we transferred our frosty little aluminum packages to the kitchen freezer at the Westin Hotel in the Renaissance Center (try pulling a request like that on the next concierge you meet) and had them brought up with our coffee and croissants on the morning of the rally. The food went into a cooler, the cooler went into our Lincoln, and we went into round-the-clock driving mode. Every afternoon between Detroit and the West Coast we'd haul out another dinner, throw it on the engine, and cook it as we lopped a few hundred more miles off the route. Let our competitors use the drive-throughs at McDonald's. We ate well, very well indeed.
We would have done the same thing in L.A. for the return trip, but we didn't have the time. Anyway, it occurred to us somewhere around Albuquerque that we couldn't have done it, since none of the people we knew in L.A. had freezers. Everyone there eats out all the time, subsisting entirely on selections from the focaccia, baby field greens, and roasted-garlic food groups.
By the time the rally ended, we'd gained more fame for our means of sustenance than for our position in the final standings: everybody, it seemed, had something to say about car-engine cooking. Half the comments were expressions of pure disbelief, while the rest amounted to variations on "Truck drivers have been doing that for years." This has always annoyed the hell out of us. All the truck drivers we've ever heard of who cook on their diesels are still punching vent holes in cans of Dinty Moore stew.
This is not to say we refuse to acknowledge the pioneers. We are by no means the first people to cook food on car engines. The idea dates back so far, in fact, that it predates cars altogether.
The Huns of the fourth and fifth centuries lived on horseback, and subsisted to a great extent on meat. When a Hun wanted to enjoy a hunk of unsmoked brisket say, when he was tearing around in the One Lap of the Western Roman Empire (with points for pillage) he would take the meat and put it under his saddlecloth, and the friction between Hun and horse would have a tenderizing and warming effect. (We think they used saddlecloths. If not, well, just don't think about it.) Since this was a situation in which a "cooking" effect was achieved by the application of excess heat generated by the means of propulsion, it is clearly part of the line of descent that led to hot lunch buckets in the cabs of steam locomotives, and to stuffed chicken breasts à la Lincoln Town Car. We can't say for sure, but it may also have been the origin of steak tartare. In any event, it did give rise to the expression "I'm home, Hun, what's for dinner?"
But let's get back to that important qualification excess heat generated by the means of propulsion. This disqualifies a lot of other attempts at mobile cookery, or at least relegates them to a different branch of evolution. We once read, for instance, that the big, handsomely outfitted carriage Napoleon Bonaparte used during his military campaigns was equipped with an oil lantern mounted above and behind the rear seat that could be used for cooking as well as lighting. But whether or not the little corporal used his lantern to heat up leftover veal Marengo, the fact is that lanterns don't make carriages go.
What Napoleon was really onto here was the ancestor of the dashboard microwave, which was being touted as the next big thing when Manifold Destiny first came out but which has, mercifully, never quite caught on. Instead, the inâ€‘dash space that might have been spewing out popcorn has been occupied by a GPS map gizmo, the greatest inducement to inattention since the cell phone. Plus, sometimes they're not all that bright. We recently heard of a guy who, when it was pointed out to him that he was driving the wrong way on a one-way street, said, "But my GPS told me to take this turn!" Of course, you could skip the GPS and install a DVD viewer, like the one the kids zone out in front of when they're in the backseat, instead of looking out the window at the Great Smoky Mountains or pissing each other off. They're illegal up front, of course, but tell that to the guy who got the fantods in Miami traffic while his cabdriver watched an inâ€‘dash boxing match. But we digress. Suffice it to say that Napoleon wasn't cooking with horsepower.
Car-engine cooking is a lot safer than reading map screens or watching dashboard TV. Since you can't check to see if your dinner is done without getting out of the vehicle and looking under the hood, it's no more dangerous than pulling over to change a tire a lot less dangerous, in fact, since you don't get to pick the location for a flat tire.
Cooking on your engine is more than just another way to multitask. Ultimately, it's all about getting some decent chow. Unless you're carrying with you the collected works of Calvin Trillin or Jane and Michael Stern, and have the time to detour to all the wonderful diners and rib joints they have chronicled, a long car trip is likely to bring you up short in the eats department. And it's not like the good old days were any better. We recently came across Henry Miller's book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, based on a six-month cross-country trip he took in a '32 Buick back in 1941. Miller finished the trip in Los Angeles, not only dyspeptic over the philistines and materialists he claimed to have encountered all over the republic, but with his innards devastated from eating in one greasy spoon after another. Poor devil that '32 Buick had an overhead valve straight eight, as choice a cooking device as any six-burner restaurant range. If only he'd known. And being Henry Miller, he'd probably have felt better about America if only he'd known that in little more than a decade after his 1941 road trip, the philistines and materialists at Rambler were going to produce a car with a backseat that folded into a bed.
But again we digress. The point is that you can make better meals for yourself, on your engine, than the vast majority of the roadside joints can make for you. Not to mention that engine cooking is a great way to sample regional foods. Think about crayfish in Louisiana (see page 94). Lake perch in Wisconsin. Italian sausage in New Jersey. And think of the fun you could have on vacation, with the whole family salivating over that dinner cooking right under your hood. Instead of "When are we going to get there?" the kids will ask, "When will the chicken be done?" Ultimately, the car-engine chef is using one of the tastiest and most healthful cooking methods, simmering foods in their own juices in a sealed package. That's what all the cutting-edge young chefs are doing with their trendy new sous-vide plastic-bag-in-hot-water cooking gimmick only you'll be doing it in foil on the open road.
So now who's the cutting-edge chef? Copyright © 1989, 1998, 2008 by Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller