Joe Writes . . .
When I was a kid my parents often joked about cooking a pot roast under the hood of our station wagon – on the engine block – while driving from our home in Cleveland, OH, to our cottage in west Michigan. The trip took 5 or 6 hours and they speculated that would be the perfect amount of time for a pot roast, but they weren’t serious and never actually tried it. My siblings and I shared our parents’ assumption that cooking on an engine block would yield food that tasted of motor oil and smelled of carbon monoxide. Now, 50 years after those 300-mile shores-of-Lake Erie to shores-of-Lake Michigan trips I’ve decided to test that assumption.
My wife and I are setting off on a 300-mile journey of our own this weekend, with country-style pork ribs cooking away under the hood along nearly the entire length of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The idea is not without its critics: my son in Arkansas thinks it proof I have finally flipped my lid, while his Arkansas in-laws wonder if I am trying to “out-redneck my redneck relatives;” i.e., them. I suspect my biggest critics may be our two dogs – food whores, both – who will be forced to endure the entire journey with fragrant roast pork and potato fumes being recirculated by the air conditioning into the cab of my truck. For five hours. Poor dogs.
Prepping for the trip, I searched under the hood and found a flat spot on the engine. I used zip ties to secure a disposable aluminum tray to a plastic hose – the purpose of which I cannot even begin to guess – so that the tray sat on top of the flat spot. I put the ribs, some sauerkraut to provide basting liquid and a few small potatoes in an aluminum pie pan, then wrapped the pie pan in aluminum foil. The pie pan fit easily into the larger pan, then the whole kit-and-caboodle was covered in even more aluminum foil. Everything was finally strapped down with duct tape – of course it was – before I closed the hood and set off on our journey.
The trip itself was uneventful. I waited for the engine indicator gauges to tell me something had gone horribly wrong under the hood, or for the smell of melting zip ties to confirm my suspicion that the engine compartment would be too hot for my purposes. Nothing. Most telling, in hindsight, was what the dogs did not do: no constant whining or begging, no copious salivating with noses pressed longingly against the air conditioning vents. The trip’s most exciting food event for them was the TimBit they were given when we stopped for the obligatory iced cappuccino supreme at Tim Horton’s in Fenton, just south of Flint.
As soon as we arrived at the cottage I ran inside to grab a couple of pot holders, certain the entire dish would be piping hot. I popped the hood and removed the duct tape, puzzling a bit at the incongruity of not hearing the sauerkraut juice bubble or the fat on the ribs splatter. The duct tape wasn’t hot at all, and the aluminum foil was no warmer than it would have been had I left it in my truck with the windows closed on a sunny day. I didn’t need the pot holders as I carried the whole thing in to the kitchen. I peeled back the aluminum foil to discover that the ribs were still pink and barely warm. After we unpacked our belongings I put the ribs – still in the covered pie pan – into a low oven for several hours while we made our first trip to a restaurant called Moosejaw Junction. We had a good meal there and the next day re-heated the ribs for dinner.
I’m no engineer but it’s likely that advances in engine technology account for the fact that the ribs didn’t cook. Engine blocks are covered in hard plastic these days, and plastic doesn’t conduct and transfer heat the way an older, bare metal engine block would have. Furthermore, increased efficiency ensures that engines generate less heat than was formerly the case, so engine compartments no longer reach the temperature required to bake a meal. These technological advances save millions of gallons of gasoline annually and drastically reduce the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. I’ll let you decide if the trade-off is worthwhile.
So another cherished notion from my youth is examined and discarded, but, truth be told, I’m not devastated by the development. I’ve also accepted that I’ll never get to China by digging a really deep hole in the backyard, but life goes on.