November 12, 2009 News » Cover Story

Drive-on dining 

New adventures in the art of internal combustion cooking

It was tempting, though. There's a profound sense of self-sufficiency that comes from cruising down I-25 with a fine meal cooking on top of a roaring engine. Throw in some freshly crushed squirrel, and you've got yourself a meal that's not only cheap, tasty and buckshot-free, but also ecologically sound (except, you know, for the whole fossil fuel thing).

Fortunately, Indy arts and culinary editor Matthew Schniper insisted on adding an equally clever element to our mobile cooking experiment. Nothing spells freedom like a pound of dead crustaceans foil-wrapped and dangling from the dipstick of a 1996 Nissan Sentra.

Noticing Matt's childlike delight as the car filled with the pungent aroma of raw shrimp leaking onto a hot engine block, it occurred to me for the first time that my colleague may in fact be insane. Over the course of the next 2½ hours, nothing would lead me to believe otherwise.

Manifold destiny

As much as I'd like to claim credit for this journey into the heart of car-cooked cuisine, it's actually Charlie Parr's fault. A few months ago, on the eve of his Front Range Barbeque appearance, the Minnesota musician told me how, during his months on the road, he'd wire up food to his engine as an ostensibly healthy alternative to roadside franchises.

"You've got a great heat source right there, you might as well use it," he reasoned. "I did a nice kielbasa and potatoes that turned out pretty good. It took about 130 miles to do it."

I don't always take advice from people who sing songs like "Dead Cat on the Line" and "Riding Lawnmower Blues," but in this case, my personal amusement begat my co-worker's enthusiasm. An enthusiasm that would later border on obsession.

And so it was that, on an uncharacteristically sunny November afternoon, we made our way off North Nevada Avenue to Gregor's Motor Works in order to have shiny packets brimming with buffalo kielbasa and bourbon-soaked beans, spinach with raw egg and goat cheese, and shocking pink shrimp with minced jalapeño peppers, professionally fixed to the silver Sentra's unsuspecting engine.

We also had s'mores.

"So we're gonna do some cookin'!" enthused Greg Roth, Matt's longtime mechanic, as we pulled in. The wiring process went smoothly, up until the moment we saw the spinach concoction discharging a yolky green effluence.

This was kind of off-putting, especially since Matt had carefully followed the instructions in Manifold Destiny, which advertises itself as "THE ONE! THE ONLY! GUIDE TO COOKING ON YOUR CAR ENGINE!" Fortunately, he'd thought to bring extra aluminum foil, and so we retreated to the shop kitchen.

It had never occurred to me that an auto shop might have a kitchen. Then again, it had never occurred to me that any mechanic would be willing, let alone eager, to prep an engine for cooking. But as soon as he started using the word "shrimpies" and the expression "two shakes of a lamb's tail," I knew we'd found the right man for the job.

Gregor, as his faithful Indy clients call him, also brought a surprising depth of experience to the project. It was as a scout, he explained, that he first learned to cook on a car engine, with the helpful guidance of Air Force guys who'd taken to mentoring local troops. Which made it all the more surprising that we were the first people to bring a car to his shop for cooking advice.

In mere moments, Gregor had carefully rewrapped everything and was wiring food to the engine. His employees looked on, no doubt realizing that these were marketable skills.

As Gregor closed the hood, he offered some last-minute advice: "So to be scientific about this, what you do is, you time all this stuff. You end up going, 'OK, I spent 30 minutes on the road, I was running at a speed of this, the ambient temperature was X. And this is what I observed after 30 minutes of driving. And this is what I observed after an hour of driving.'

"You know, 'It was baked to a fine crunch after an hour, and it was perfect after half an hour. See, then you actually fine-tune what you're doing. You see what I'm saying?"

Black-tie tailgating

After 45 minutes and 40 miles of driving, we pulled into the World Arena parking lot. It had been a circuitous route — down to Fountain and back solely to rack up driving time — but the rewards were well within sight, with hundreds of people already lining up for an afternoon performance of the mighty Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

After driving past a police car and a couple of traffic attendants who had no idea what was lurking beneath our hood, we backed into a spot, rolled down the windows, cranked up the latest TSO album we'd saved for this very occasion, and popped the hood. We'd also brought lawn chairs and a small table complete with checkered cloth and picnic ware, in hopes of attracting fellow TSO fans.

The good news is that the engine didn't affect the food's taste. The bad news is that it didn't affect its temperature much, either.

True, the chocolate in the s'mores was melted, but no more than it might have been if left in a glove compartment on a warm afternoon. The marshmallows, meanwhile, remained fully puffed.

Likewise, the kielbasa, beans and spinach were merely lukewarm, and the shrimp showed no signs of having cooked whatsoever. Amazingly, Matt agreed to forego the shrimp, which meant that I would not have to write my first obituary.

The TSO fans, I have to say, were a disappointment. True, a few expressed mild curiosity, even a bemused sort of appreciation. But no one actually broke their stride, not to accept our offer of s'mores or to respond with more than a brusque "No" when Matt would ask if they'd ever cooked food on their engine.

I soon realized that everyone around us shared more than just a love for the bombastic interpolations of "Night on Bald Mountain" and sub-Meat Loaf vocals blaring from our car windows. It really didn't matter if they were dressed in elegant evening wear (and many were), crisp uniforms or Kmart casual. They all gave us a wide berth, and even my perpetually optimistic colleague sensed that we were being shunned.

Had this been a Lynyrd Skynyrd show, rowdy revelers would surely have hoisted us onto their shoulders in solidarity with our display of American ingenuity. Now alone in a sea of cars, we packed up the Sentra and headed for the exit.

Road tour

As we drove back downtown, I began to notice pangs of regret that were only partially due to my increasingly unsettled stomach. In my least cynical moments, I had envisioned us carrying on a hallowed tradition. What Boswell had been to Johnson, what Kerouac had been to Cassidy, that's what I would be to a guy who wanted to cook food on his car engine.

And yet, it was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. Unless, of course, the anything in question turned out to be something of actual value, in which case I would have to reconsider.

Matt, meanwhile, is already making plans for next week's Mannheim Steamroller show.



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