Recipes Gauged for
Long Drives to Montana

A Guide to Manifold Cooking

© 2015 by Charlie Parr
Little Judges Publishing Co.
Duluth, Minnesota

An introduction to manifold cooking

The thing about cooking food on the exhaust manifold of your car is that small things can make a big difference in the results you get, so the type of car, engine size, weather (a big one), traffic and even time of day can throw everything off. And there's no good way to achieve any kind of consistency, which many folks will find very frustrating when a meal works very well one day and is a disaster the next. It's all part of the trip, though. One day you eat the tamale, one day the tamale falls off the motor onto highway 99 and a crow eats it.

Portion size will also be a factor. You really can't cook much at once unless you're driving a '65 Galaxie or some other old tank. Cars nowadays are small and efficient, making them bad ovens. But if you're only cooking for one or two, then you can get by.

Check the weather, you won't want to try this in the rain, you'll end up with a soggy lukewarm whatever it was you put in there. Cooler temps are fine, you'll just need to drive farther, which brings us to distance, an inexact science at best. My recipes are all a lot of trial and error, and cooking times (given in miles) all depend on the variables and sometimes a surprise – a traffic jam or road construction will change your dinner plans.

So get to know your motor. If you eat meat go buy a hotdog and wrap it in foil. If you're a vegetarian pick up a veggie dog (you don't have to eat it, just feel it up to see if it's warmed through). Find the exhaust manifold and place the hotdog-wrapped-in-foil directly on the manifold. If you can't tuck it in anywhere you may need a little wire. Then go for a drive, in-town driving won't take too long to warm it up, maybe just five miles or so, and freeway driving may take as long as 20 or 30 miles depending on all the variables. Once you have a rough idea about how many miles it takes to heat something through you can gauge this whole thing a little better.

I drive mostly on the freeway, so these recipes will be gauged for long drives to Montana.

You'll need heavy tin foil, maybe tongs or an oven mitt, wire, pliers and a plate. Oh, and somewhere to go. I prep food on the road. You can use your kitchen if it's easier. I'm also a fan of simple foods, but your dinner is your own and you can follow your imagination and deviate wildly from my ideas. Like I say, this is inconsistent, inexact, prone to failure, inefficient, and frustrating. Bon appetit.

If you're a city dweller you'll want to experiment a little more. When you're stuck in traffic it's hard to rescue your burrito before it burns, so practice at popping the hood and sprinting out with an oven mitt to grab your lunch before the line starts moving again. When it's hot, adjust the miles down, when it's cold you might need to add a few or make a simple air dam from sheet metal to protect your pouch from the icy cold wind streaming up under the hood.

I can't say it enough, there will never be any consistency like there is with your oven at home but I've managed to cook a good variety of foods and have only failed completely on two occasions: one in Wisconsin when I hit a rainstorm and my hobo stew went from hot to lukewarm and soggy, and another time in Oregon when the tamales disappeared because I didn't wire them down.

Cooking has changed with every car I've owned. I recently got a little Kia, which is turning out to be the best cooking car I've owned, plus gets the best mileage, so it's important to get to know your car's particular aptitude for this before you take my times too seriously.

This article originally appeared in Peninsula Pulse.


Asparagus or Brussels Sprouts

Basically you're steaming everything, right? So you'll want to quarter Brussels sprouts and cut the asparagus up into about 2" lengths to help the cooking process. I like a generous amount of balsamic vinegar, a little salt and pepper and some cayenne. Wrap them so the liquid can't run out (make a little pouch, pinch it at the top) and place them so the opening is up and make sure you have a lot of good contact to the manifold. In my Kia this will take at least 100 miles in average weather. Stirring mid-way is not required. If you're looking, it ain't cooking.


Curry Rice and Tempeh

This involves some cheating, depending on who you ask. If you ask me I'll say that I'm hungry and don't have time to be a purist. You either need to parboil the rice or buy that little instant rice pouch (90 seconds in the microwave equals about 50 miles). I mix the rice with either a ready-made curry sauce or else I've also done curry powder and cayenne in water with either a little creamer from the truck stop or else a little yogurt from the hotel's free breakfast buffet, which you can either bravely walk into in the morning from the parking lot (leave your shirt unbuttoned) or rent a room and walk downstairs from there. Mix it all up, cut in some tempeh or if you eat meat, you'll want to cook that in a separate pouch and combine it later but it should take about the same amount of time. Always check the pouch so there won't be any leaking, and be careful not to rip the foil. I normally don't use double layers, but if I were doing a fatty meat I probably would just to be safe. Sausages, you know, have a tendency to pop and spray fat out of themselves and a grease fire on the freeway is going to suck. This one's a good 100 miles and I recommend checking on it at about 75 miles and taking it from there.


Apple Crisp

All I do is slice an apple pretty fine, drizzle with honey and cinnamon and sprinkle with granola. Wrap it tight and get it a lot of contact with the manifold for 40 or 50 miles.


Manifold Stew

Your best bet is get a small package of frozen mixed vegetables (keep them frozen) and a small package of frozen breakfast potatoes (the kind that look like little cubes, you know) and I usually get a nice kielbasa...any sausage type product will work well, including the vegetarian variety. So slice that up and mix the veggies and potatoes all together, spice it up -- salt and pepper -- or whatever you like, divide it in 2 and wrap each in 3 layers of aluminum foil. Now open the hood and find the exhaust manifold(s) -- (the exhaust manifold, in case you don't have experience with these things, is normally going to look like a large tube or tubes that leave the motor and turn into the exhaust pipe(s); it varies from motor to motor, but you'll usually see them around the middle to bottom half of the motor and leading to the back) these babies need to be wedged in so that they're right on the manifold. If they're too big, it won't work, so you'll need to either divide them further or save some for another time or find somebody else going the same way as you. My technique is to jam the packages in between the manifold and either the head or the block, but it really depends on what type of car you have -- my experience has been with a 1975 Ford F-250 with a straight 6 and that was the best, the manifold came out the side of the motor like a shelf and you just laid on your dinner and wired it down tight and took off -- cooking time was low since the motor was pretty inefficient and gave off tons of heat. Now I have a mini van. It's got a V-6 and plenty of options for fitting the food on the manifold, but it's much more efficient and takes a little longer to get the food done. I was coming out of Waco, Texas once with about 6 Hot Chubbies stuffed around the manifold and ended burning them since it was so hot outside and I drove too far. But I ate them anyway and they were just fine. You might have to check on your dinner a couple times...if you're up north, and it's winter, you might want to wait until spring or until you go south, this dish typically takes me about 100 miles when the temp is in the 60's. You've got to factor in the rain, too, which will royally screw up your cooking times. Be prepared for some trial and error, you might have to adopt a kind of zen attitude to your lunch, but when it works, it'll be worth it.


Orange Bread

This one is for a long haul in the west, since in my van it's a good 6 hour ordeal. Get some bread dough -- I'm lazy about it, I get it frozen from the market...but I bet it'll come out better if you can make it on your own. Get an orange. Get a big orange, make sure you peel it so that the peel doesn't break, you'll need to re-assemble it. Eat the orange. Put a ball of dough in the orange peel and re-assemble it and wrap it in 3 layers of aluminum foil. Don't make the ball too big...or know, about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of your orange. Now if you've chosen a giant orange and you have a Subaru this is going to take a long, long time, but if you have a regular large orange and a '59 Beetle, you'll be eating in no time. I plan this one for crossing North Dakota in the summer, stop every 2 hours and check it, then turn it before you move on -- you can use the old toothpick method, I suppose, for checking it, or you might have a better way. When it's done you should have a bread ball that tastes lightly of orange and you can eat it with your stew if your motor's big enough.


Quick Nut Snack

Sneaky Pete had this idea -- I got a bag of almonds that were raw, you know, I didn't mean to, I wanted roasted. But anyway, if you have some of those, dump a bunch of cayenne pepper on them, mix it up, lay them out on some aluminum foil and kind of flatten it out on the manifold. You'll need to stop at some point and turn them and check them, but they should roast and be nice and hot and spicy when they're done.


City Pages interview

Charlie Parr's guide to cooking under the hood of your car
By Natalie Gallagher
City Pages Gimme Noise

Charlie Parr might be known first for his music, but a lesser-known talent of local blues-folk star is his intrepid road warrior-esque cooking skills. It's tough, as any touring musician knows, to find fresh produce and quality food when you're driving for hours on end. Eventually, you start convincing yourself that condiments count as vegetables. But Parr, after so many years of driving -- and after finding a need to radically change his diet two years ago -- has solved all that.

When Gimme Noise spoke to Charlie Parr last week about his new album Barnswallow, he talked about a process he'd developed over the years of cooking meals on his car manifold. All said and done, manifold cooking works essentially like a steam-cooked meal would: foil-wrapped edibles are heated by way of the vehicle engine while driving (because the engine needs to be hot, obviously), and voila! Never again shall you suffer through the almost-mediocrity of a gas station egg roll.

Parr may seem like either the least likely or the most likely person in the world to be cooking his meals on his engine, but he insists it's really not a big deal. "This is nothing new," said Parr last week, explaining some of the history. "This is really old. Locomotive engineers used to do this, they still do. Locomotive manifolds can get really hot... And truck drivers do this all the time."

Gimme Noise couldn't resist asking Parr for the recipe to his roadside specialty, curried lentils and vegetables -- what Parr referred to as his "swan song," the point when he had finally mastered mantifold cuisine. In an email, Parr explains -- in a narration that is distinctly his own--his ever-evolving culinary process.

"Yes -- the lentils -- it kind of changes as time and trips go on, and sometimes depends on what's available. The last time I did it was red lentils, not more than 1 serving, since you can't cook a whole lot at once, a small onion chopped up (I have a little cutting board), I found some peppers (habanaro) and had a little broccoli, carrots and a tomato from a guy in a pickup in Georgia. So it's gotta be a small amount, all told I suppose it's a healthy soup-bowl full."

Finding some of these ingredients on the road might be a little difficult, but if worst comes to worst, a can of beans and a bag of frozen veggies is still better than a Big Mac.

"I use some curry powder, garlic, cayenne pepper and mix it all up. Wrap it in foil, 2 layers but no more than 4, like it's a bowl with all the opening parts up. before you close it add a bit of water, maybe a 1/4 cup not much. Jam it onto the exhaust manifold, making sure it's making good contact and not in the way of any moving parts or in danger of falling off. Use a little wire if necessary. Then start the motor and double check that nothing's being impeded by yr dinner. Drive away."

For those of us who don't regularly pop the hood of our vehicles and poke around, the book Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine! makes it look easy.

"If it's hot outside go about 20-25 miles and check it and give it a stir. Another 25-50 miles would do it for me. If it's really hot, adjust that time down and if it's colder then you gotta go farther (I drive alot so not usually an issue) it also depends on yr motor and how efficient it is -- this all happened on a Dodge V-6 that was not too efficient. The best cooking motor I've had was a 1968 Ford straight six. I haven't tried this on too many cars, but the Subaru Forester I had for a while didn't work too well. If it's raining you can almost never cook and you should have a sandwich instead."

Put simply, in the way only Charlie Parr can.

"There are a lot of variables I'm afraid and I had to do a lot of trial and error to find out how many miles I needed to go in what weather and at what altitude to cook anything. This curry was eaten somewhere in Tennessee and was the best thing I'd done. I was alone and ate it all with no witnesses."

There you have it, folks. Curried lentils and vegetables by Charlie Parr. Imagine what this guy could do with a cookbook deal.


Mikey's Kitchen interview

An interview with folk musician Charlie Parr
By Mike Farley
Mikey's Kitchen

In my other life, I am a music publicist. And one of my clients is Duluth based folk musician Charlie Parr, who is a global icon in Americana/folk circles. For good reason, too. The publicist in me says you should all listen to Charlie Parr (he re-released fan favorite albums 1922 and Glory in the Meeting House yesterday on House of Mercy Recordings and has a new studio album due in early 2013), but Charlie has an interesting method of cooking while on tour in his van — he cooks meals on top of his exhaust manifold. Well, being a foodie and music publicist, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss this cooking method with Charlie and share it with all of you…

Mikey’s Kitchen: When did you start cooking on your manifold and what was the first dish you made?

Charlie Parr: Year’s ago, at least 20 or so. I started with real simple re-heating stuff and made brats, warmed up corn-bread, heated up sandwiches.

MK: How long does it take to heat up any given dish?

CP: There are many variables, such as the weather. If it’s raining it won’t work, if it’s cold out, you may need to construct a simple air-dam to trap some heat, if it’s real hot you can’t go too far. Generally, all things being equal, I can get sufficient heat to warm something through in 20 miles or thereabouts. Cooking things like beans or veggies, or meats will usually go to about 50-75 miles depending on the dish. A nice melt-sandwich can be had in 30 miles depending on the weather. This is all freeway, by the way, traveling in traffic changes everything and is harder since if you cook in hot weather and your commute is 30 minutes in traffic, you’ll end up burning your breakfast burrito. It needs checking at about 15 minutes or less if you’re idling to see how it’s going. If you have a Dodge Van from about 1965 or so you can open the doghouse at the top while you’re driving and check it that way. But I don’t have one of those.

MK: What dish works the best with this method?

CP: I like making mixed veggies or black beans and rice. You start with three layers of tin foil with the folds at the top, make it easy to open and close since you’ll be checking and stirring once, add a bit of water for steam, and plenty of spice (I like Sriracha). If you’re using rice, the instant kind works best unless you’re cooking them separate (need a V8 for this). Make sure everything is mixed well and let her go for 30 miles–then stop and check and stir, re-wrap and maybe grab a new hot spot and go another 30-40 miles and it should be ready to eat.

MK: What limitations do you have cooking this way?

CP: Things that need to be checked a lot. Seafood is hard unless it’s precooked. Potatoes take a while and often need to be given more water about halfway through. Meat is hard unless it’s ground or in a sausage form, then it’s very easy. Things that need direct contact with heat (steaks, etc) are out since you’re really steaming everything and can’t apply direct heat (the food would get dirty/oily). Tin foil is the only thing I’ve found that conducts heat well enough to cook – I’ve tried little pans, foil pans, tin cans and those work sometimes, but tin foil works all the time and rarely leaks if you wrap it carefully.

MK: What you have you not tried yet that you would like to?

CP: I’ve started doing a few bread-style things and want to do more. I also have been meaning to do Toad-in-the-hole for some time, and I also got a vegetarian cookbook that I’m going to dig into and try some things. Emily’s (Charlie’s wife) not into this, though, so I can only really cook when I’m touring on my own.


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