Charlie Parr's guide to cooking under the hood of your car

Charlie Parr's guide to cooking under the hood of your car
Photo by Richard Narum

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.

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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."

Car engine packed with foil packets of food
Car engine packed with foil packets of food
Photo credit to Not Quite Nigella blog, 2008

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.

Charlie Parr plays two CD Release shows at the Cedar Cultural Center: Friday, February 1 at 8 p.m. with Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers and Saturday, February 2 at 8 p.m. with Murder of Crows. $15. All ages. 

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