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‘Manifold Destiny’ Is the Apotheosis of Dude Cooking

Published in 1989, it was the cookbook that dared to ask: Why not use your car engine as a stove?

The cover of the book “Manifold Destiny,” superimposed over a yellow and red backdrop. Photo illustration. Lille Allen/Eater

As anyone who reads this website has surely figured out by now, there are many kinds of cooking. There’s cooking as a job to pay the bills; cooking as a way to impress friends, loved ones, and TikTok; cooking to create a connection to the past and long-lost ancestors and homelands. There is call-of-duty cooking to feed families who never appreciate the effort. Some even cook when the spirit moves them, because it is fun.

And then there is dude cooking.

Dude cooking has very little to do with actual food, though sometimes a good meal can come out of it. But that’s just a pleasant side effect. Dude cooking is all about the method. If it requires special equipment, like a sous vide machine or a smoker; or has an element of danger, like an open fire; or requires building something, like a backyard brick pizza oven; or requires some sort of feat of endurance, like manning a barbecue pit for 18 hours, it is dude cooking. It follows the same principle as jumping a skateboard on top of a highway guardrail or wrestling an alligator or climbing Mount Everest. You do it to see if it can be done.

Dude cooking can, of course, be done by non-dudes. But what makes it dude cooking is that it’s done outside the realm of the usual daily breakfast-lunch-dinner grind. You can’t depend on dude cooking for regular meals. Dude, it takes time to fire up that smoker and get that perfect ring on the brisket!

Father’s Day is the prime season for dude cookbooks, most of which involve grilling. But I would argue that the epitome of dude cookery was published more than 30 years ago and since then (apart from a burst of excitement over the revised edition nine years later) mostly forgotten, which is a damned shame. I refer to Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine! by Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller.

As best I can tell, this is indeed the only cookbook devoted to the art of cooking on the car engine, though there have been a few advances in car cooking since it was first published in 1989 (more on those later). The charming thing about the book is that while Maynard and Scheller are conscious of the ridiculousness of their enterprise, they are entirely sincere about teaching their fellow Americans how to prepare delicious meals as they go zooming down the highway.

The pair were so sincere that they even planned to produce specific cookbooks for every car model to eliminate the guesswork of where to put the food on the engine. Alas, this dream went unfulfilled, but if you happen to own a 1965 Jaguar XK-E, congratulations: Not only do you have a very fine classic sports car, you also have the biggest, most conveniently arranged cooking-engine ever made (at least according to Maynard and Scheller, and really, why should we doubt them?).

The basic method of engine cookery is simple and owes a lot to foil packet grilling: Season your main ingredient, add a little bit of fat or braising liquid, toss in some herbs and vegetables, then wrap it up tight and snuggle it in a hot, secure place under the hood. The method works best for braising; there’s too much sloshing involved in frying, simmering, and boiling, and with the foil, you can’t get direct heat for a good crisp roasting. The authors stress that everything should be wrapped in three layers of foil to avoid leaks (or, worse, a stray green bean or scrap of pork tenderloin falling directly onto the engine) and to prevent the food from acquiring extra flavor from gasoline or exhaust.

Once your food is properly wrapped, it’s time, gentlemen, to start your engines. Scheller and Maynard have thoughtfully determined cooking times for all their recipes in terms of miles, not clock time. You can prepare JB’s Mall Pups in about 25 miles, or the distance to the mall (yes, it was the ’80s), while a full Thanksgiving dinner will take 220 miles over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house.

So okay. For a dude cook, this is all extremely logical. But what inspired Scheller and Maynard, who are neither chefs nor mechanics but a writer and photographer, respectively? The way they tell it, their epiphany came in the summer of 1984 on the way home from a canoeing trip in Canada. Good gourmands that they were, they made a pit stop at Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal to pick up some smoked meat for a rest-stop picnic.

“We were barely out of the city,” they write, “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 those stories we used to hear thirty years ago, about lonely truckers cooking hot dogs and beans on their car engines. Why not Schwartz’s smoked meat?”

So they pulled over the car — a 1984 diesel VW Rabbit — to buy some aluminum foil and slip the packet of smoked meat under the air filter. When they rolled into a Vermont rest stop an hour later, the meat was steaming hot and just as delicious as it would have been if they’d eaten it back at the deli, without the slightest tinge of motor oil.

It might have ended there, except that in 1988, the pair took part in the Cannonball One Lap of America Rally, a weeklong, 8,000-mile highway marathon. This punishing schedule didn’t leave much time for eating. But then they remembered their smoked meat triumph. What if they prepared meals in advance, kept them frozen in a cooler, and cooked them on the engine of their Lincoln Town Car when they got hungry?

By all accounts, especially their own, Maynard and Scheller were the envy of every other driver on the One Lap rally. Soon they were also the subject of a profile in People magazine. From there, a book deal seemed inevitable.

“I kept saying, ‘This is stupid,’” Maynard told USA Today in 1998. “Then I realized: This is America. It’s just stupid enough.”

Fully half of the first edition of Manifold Destiny is devoted to the method of car engine cookery, specifically optimal placement of the foil packets. Poor positioning can result in dropping a meal right in the middle of the highway (or inadvertently chopping it to pieces in the fan belt), interference with things an engine needs to do to run properly, or, worst of all, a cold meal. The flattest cooking surface, and also the hottest part of the engine, is the exhaust manifold, but in most modern cars, it’s buried under a whole bunch of other stuff. To find a worthy substitute, Maynard and Scheller offer this bit of wisdom: “Just get your engine up to operating temperature, turn off the ignition, lift the hood, and touch metallic things with your finger until you burn it.” Great!

It has been traditional for journalists who write about Manifold Destiny to give engine cookery a spin. Some of them were fortunate enough to do this accompanied by the authors, like the USA Today reporter who, in 1998, traveled with them down the Garden State Parkway to the Jersey Shore as they cooked a Veal Rollatini Calabrese alla Passeggiata (it turned out very well). Others had to make do on their own with varying results. A Chicago Tribune reporter heated up a couple of meals on her commute to and from the office and found them palatable. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011, a writer for the Virginian-Pilot who had no access to a working oven prepared shrimp seasoned with peppers and garlic on her engine and shared the result with a friend who told her, “It’s good! I couldn’t have told that you cooked it on your car.” A reporter for the Washington Times was less satisfied: He had failed to follow instructions and put his barbecue sandwich too close to the fan shroud, which tore it to shreds.

Even though it was a cliche, I thought I should probably follow suit, for Journalism. I am familiar with the engine of my car — a 2010 Honda Civic — insofar that I know how to open the hood and am capable of refilling wiper fluid. I also know how to read a dipstick — I think (though the engine light has made that skill redundant) — but I am pretty sure I couldn’t find the exhaust manifold if my life depended on it, even after some desperate Googling. Maynard and Scheller had suggestions for optimal cooking surfaces in a few models, but none of them, of course, had been manufactured in this century. I asked a mechanically minded cousin for advice, but he only flipped through the book, shaking his head in disbelief, and then handed it back to me wordlessly. (He did stop at the dedication “For Pluggy and Molly” to howl, “These guys have wives?” Well, yes and no. Scheller had a wife. Pluggy was Maynard’s dog.)

So one afternoon, after running errands, I decided to try Maynard and Scheller’s testing method. I popped the hood and put my hands close enough to the engine to feel how hot various parts were; I didn’t really want to touch it and burn a finger. There was a spot near the top that seemed like it could accommodate a couple of hot dogs and maybe even cook them.

But I couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. (My editor fully supported me in this decision.) [Ed: It’s true.] For one thing, if anything went wrong, I didn’t really want to have to explain to a mechanic that yes, I had been foolish enough to try to make dinner on my engine. For another, engines are better insulated now than they were 40 years ago and it’s harder to find a decent cooking surface. For a third, no one, not even the book’s two authors, had ever claimed that the food in Manifold Destiny was better than the food you could cook in an actual oven. They only claimed it was better than fast food you could get on the road. In dude cooking, it’s all about the process.

Maybe it’s unsurprising that famous dude cooks have independently engaged in their own engine-cooking experiments. In 2007, the crew of the BBC show Top Gear attempted to impress Gordon Ramsay with three meals cooked a la engine as the cars raced around a track; Ramsay gamely gave them a try but, after a single bite, was reduced to uncharacteristic silence. (“I think Gordon is about to be sick,” declared host Jeremy Clarkson.) Alton Brown had better luck when he guest-hosted MythBusters in 2012 and successfully cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner under the hood of a classic convertible during a scenic coastal drive through Marin County, California. This success was not due to chance: Because he was Alton Brown, he used a computer and temperature probe to meticulously monitor the heat levels of the various dishes. (I’m sure this is a car and a setup the authors of Manifold Destiny dream of.)

But none of this can compare to the mobile kitchen Jamie Oliver convinced Land Rover to trick out especially for him back in 2017. It had a slow cooker in the engine, a toaster in the center console of the front seat, butter and ice cream churners in the wheels, olive oil and vinegar dispensers mounted in the tailgate, a built-in herb garden and spice rack, a rotisserie, a pasta machine, and a grill, plus a table and a TV so a family could dine in comfort. And it was also driveable! It was true that only the slow cooker, the toaster, and the churners could be used while the car was in motion, so it didn’t quite fulfill the promise of Manifold Destiny, but it was still a pretty sweet ride. If I had such a car, I would have absolutely no qualms about heating up a pot of chili or chicken soup during a nice, long road trip.

Then I realized that a car like this totally misses the whole point of Manifold Destiny. For Maynard and Scheller, car cooking is about the journey, not the destination. The two authors told the Chicago Tribune in 1989 that their favorite engine meal ever was Cruise-Control Pork Tenderloin, cooked with Dijon mustard, white wine, red onion, and rosemary. But the relative gourmet-ness wasn’t why they loved it.

“We were driving through the southwest corner of Idaho at 80 miles an hour munching pork tenderloin,” Maynard recalled. “It was a tenderloin epiphany.”

“The territory was desolate, yet beautiful,” Scheller added. “We were listening to old Bob Dylan tapes and eating the tenderloin, a nice way to live.”

And really, what could be better than that?

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.