Last year I was sitting in a service station, facing a tricky decision. Sausage, egg and beans? Burger and chips? Or an overpriced sandwich? None of these processed foods appealed to me in the slightest. It got me thinking; there must be a better way, a way to eat delicious hot food, on the move, at your own convenience. This triggered the idea that cooking in its simplest form was just applying heat to food. Where could you get heat from? A car engine. It seemed so simple. Contain food securely in tinfoil packages, and then place them on the engine, and the heat would cook the food as you drive.
And so Carbecue was born. On a return journey from Edinburgh, my siblings and I stopped at the local butcher, full of enthusiasm, and excitement about what lay ahead. We bought a handful of lamb chops, a few potatoes and a couple of green beans. Wrapping them up very thoroughly in tinfoil, and carefully putting them on the engine, we set off. I don’t think I have ever been so excited about a meal as I was that day. The thought of actually cooking food using my car was extraordinary. About 100 miles down the road we stopped for lunch, and unwrapped the piping hot package with a nervous excitement. Inside were beautifully cooked lamb chops, with steam billowing out. It made for such a jolly lunch. We ate and laughed and dreamt up new recipes for what we would cook next.
A few Google searches later and I found that cooking on car engines was a known phenomenon in USA, and that it had started during hard times, as a way for truckers to cook without paying for electricity to heat their ovens. However, I found nothing inspiring in my searches, so I began cooking using my engine more and more. From sirloin, to fish, and from pigeon to shrimp, I wasn’t afraid to try anything, and the results were very pleasing and I was having such fun doing it. I have always found car journeys great for thinking and it was during one of these journeys that I decided that I needed to spread the word about engine cooking. Whether inspired, or foolish optimism, I would have fun along the way, and would no doubt learn a lot.
So I began to juggle my university degree at Edinburgh with a recipe once a week. In typical student manner funds were very low, but I spared no expense on quality ingredients and a good camera. I soon found that cooking times varied between cars, so I attached a cooking thermometer to my dashboard and wired it up through the window, under the bonnet and into the food. This allowed me to see exactly when the food was perfectly cooked from the comfort of my own car and saved time checking the food. Unfortunately, I do not recommend you use a thermometer as you may pierce the tinfoil package in doing so. I made the decision very early that I would keep everything ‘in-house’, largely dictated by the fact that I couldn’t afford anyone else’s help. I used friends where I could, and my sister is a fantastic freelance chef, which has been a great help. I would have loved to have someone who knew about photography helping me, but I realised I would just have to learn. After about four or five months of sporadic engine cooking, and a slipping educational record, I had compiled about 20 recipes, having tried them on my car, refined them, and photographed them. Now all I had to do was compile them into a book. I hadn’t really considered how to do this. And within an hour of starting I quickly realised that often my photos were inadequate, my writing debatable and wit non-existent (despite clear attempts). So I postponed progress to the summer, where I had a strict timeline of 4 months to complete the book. And here I am with a finished book, with good photographs, better writing, and wit still non-existent (with now, clear desperate attempts).
I have tried to make the book as visually strong as I could, in order to prove to people just how successful cooking on a car is. Every photo taken of food in this book has been cooked on a car and no shortcuts have been taken. That was always very important to me to reflect a fair image of a Carbecue.
I guess that it is only natural that I fell into writing this book. My father is an entrepreneurial engineer, who has helped start over one hundred companies. My mother is an inspired cook, who has always provided home cooked food and told us of the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My sister went to Ballymaloe, and has become a brilliant freelance chef. My brother works as an engineer for a food company, producing environmentally-friendly food packaging. And my other sister loves eating. So I guess that along the way I picked up an appetite for both engineering and cooking but committed to neither, thus leaving me somewhere in the middle. And Carbecue seems to be the creation of this mix.
Maybe I’ve driven in my car alone for too long with my thoughts overtaking me, but it seems to me service stations are largely depressing places with inadequate food options. With the exception of Westmoreland Tebay Services on the M6, which is a wonderful farm shop with locally produced food and a butcher on site, service stations produce substandard, greasy, pre-packaged food that doesn’t appeal. Unfortunately, they hold a monopoly and twenty years ago this was what the demand for food was in this country. In recent times there has been somewhat of a food revolution, and inspiring work from celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has changed the way we think about food. Now there is a real focus on cooking sustainably produced food, from scratch, and this book tries to encompass these beliefs wherever possible.
I can practically hear you say, “Where’s the sustainability in cooking on a car engine? Surely, if anything that’s adding to the problem?” Well, no: what I advocate is that you should never drive to cook, but only cook when driving. So if you are doing a journey anyway then it is entirely possible and highly likely that en route or on arrival you may want to eat. In this case it is very sensible and more sustainable to cook using your car engine. If your engine is going to be producing enough heat to cook on anyway, then you may as well use it, rather than use additional energy when you get home to power your oven.
In my car I have now commandeered an old wooden box, which I keep useful things like salt, pepper, paprika, a sharp knife, a few glasses, plates, knives and forks. I have found that it is brilliant, particularly when setting out on a journey away from home to have some staples in the car so that I can cook food from scratch whenever the opportunity arises. You never know when a carbecue expedition may spring up on you.
It is worth pointing out that you can cook on any petrol or diesel car engine. And although I have never cooked using a hybrid car, I have come across people who have, but they have warned me that cooking times must be extended. Many modern cars are covered in plastic, but ultimately the engine is made of metal and so the heated bits do still exist but are just harder to find. Unfortunately, cooking on fully electric cars isn’t possible, as they don’t produce nearly enough heat.
Alfred Cary is also the founder of Fire & Dough Wood fired pizza company. Visit www.fireanddoughpizza.co.uk for more information.