Feeding automotive appetites Recipes: Dinner with Bill Scheller may include a leisurely drive down a long country road and food hot off the engine block.

Sun Journal

November 16, 1998|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WATERVILLE, Vt. -- Arrive at Bill Scheller's house for dinner and you'd better be prepared.

No, don't bring a loaf of rosemary black-olive focaccia and a good Merlot -- or even a suitcase of Bud and a can of spray cheese. What Scheller wants is something -- well, more in a V-8.

"Let's see what you've got here," he says, popping the hood of the blue Subaru wagon that just pulled into his driveway. For the next 30 seconds he surveys the engine, fiddles with wires, pokes and prods. "Well, that ought to do."

Scheller isn't a mechanic. He's a writer. And a cook. More specifically, he's a writer who likes to cook on the engine of his car.

He shoves four small aluminum-wrapped packets of bread, mozzarella cheese and anchovy paste here and there under the hood, slams it shut and opens the driver-side door. His mission: to drive for 40 miles along the back roads of Northern Vermont until the cheese is nice and melted.

"What says more about people than the way they eat and the way they drive?" Scheller asks as he jams his stocky frame into the car.

L Fine. He's got a point. But why bother cooking on an engine?

Scheller, who grew up in Paterson, N.J., eating his mother's Southern Italian cooking, doesn't just do it because he hates soggy fast-food burgers, Funyons and other road-food staples. The reason Scheller relishes a good engine-cooked meal now and again is this: "It's fun," he says, smiling. "And it's not in the owner's manual."

Scheller, 48, doesn't just cook on his engine; he tells other people how to do it, too. Along with Chris Maynard, he is the co-author of a car-engine cookbook called "Manifold Destiny" (Villard, $9.95), which is full of recipes for dishes like Poached Fish Pontiac, Safe at Any Speed Stuffed Eggplant and Lead-Foot Stuffed Cabbage. Published in 1989, the book was updated and re-released this summer.

A travel writer for National Geographic Traveler and Islands magazine, Scheller became fascinated with cooking al Fiat in 1984 when he and a friend, New York Times photographer Maynard, wanted to keep a pound of smoked brisket from a Montreal deli warm on their trip to Boston.

Remembering stories they'd heard about truckers cooking cans of beans on their engines as they drove, they triple-wrapped the brisket in aluminum foil and wedged it into a spot underneath the air filter of their 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. By the time they reached Boston five hours later they had a new obsession.

Soon they were calling each other with news of their latest accomplishments: "I poached a fillet of sole."

"I roasted a stuffed eggplant."

"I made baked apples."

Well, they made baked apples, but they were hard as rocks. "We discussed early on, it's almost impossible to bake apples unless you're driving to Albuquerque," Scheller admits.

Because he is a long way from New Mexico, on a dirt road outside the tiny town of Eden, fancy grilled-cheese sandwiches called Speedy Spedini will have to do. Scheller checks his watch and keeps driving. "A few more minutes," he says.

Car-engine cooking is an inexact science. Recipes are timed by miles, not minutes. The idea is to get small packets of food as close as possible to the engine's exhaust manifold, which reaches temperatures of up to 600 degrees. Drivers can't control the cooking temperature. And every make and model of car is set up a little differently under the hood. Some engines lend themselves better to the craft than others.

A GMC Suburban might only have room for a few Pop Tarts. And a Chevy S-10 pickup, Scheller says, is "a good appetizer vehicle. If you want an entree, go pick up some take-out."

But a 1965 Jaguar XKE has a straight-six engine, one long uncluttered block of cooking space. That's as close to perfect as you can get. "I've always wanted to cook a pork tenderloin on a Jaguar XKE," Scheller says.

Car-engine cooking isn't some sort of yuppie fast food for drivers who are too busy shuttling their kids and their yellow Lab to soccer practice and doggie day care to cook dinner. It requires preparation and planning. "This is more like Crock-Pot cooking than microwave cooking," Scheller says.

At long last, he pulls over to the side of the road. Time to check on dinner.

"Got any potholders?" asks Scheller, who of course keeps a full supply of paper towels, cooking oil and other culinary equipment in his car at all times.

"Uh no," his passenger replies.

Scheller plucks a foil package from a mass of metal and wire, unwraps it with nary a grimace and takes a bite. "Not bad," he says, chewing thoughtfully. "Not bad at all."

He's right. It's not bad. The cheese is melted. The anchovies are salty. But instead of being brown and crisp like a grilled cheese, the bread is cottony and soft. "If you've got an engine with a good exhaust manifold, you'll get some good, fast cooking, maybe even some browning," Scheller says, wiping a string of cheese from his mustache. "But mostly it's more like braising."

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