Cooking Up a Character

By Louise Ure


I think the fascination started for me with Lawrence Sanders’ retired chief of detectives, Edward X. “Iron Balls” Delaney and his distinction between “dry” sandwiches (which could be eaten in front of the TV) and “wet” sandwiches (which could only be consumed while leaning over the sink). That detail – his appreciation of the various combinations of food, his inability to actually cook anything, his meals eaten alone – told me more about the man than a dozen pages of dry, descriptive prose could ever have.


It’s funny how those little asides – those distinctive and distinguishing marks we give our characters – can become so memorable. They are the details that round out our characters, that give them life and breath, that make them human. Nero Wolfe’s orchids. Matthew Scudder’s drinking and tithing. Dave Robicheaux’s fishing.


In earlier days, those idiosyncrasies and character traits were often vices, like gambling, drinking and smoking, but those days are gone for all but Lee Child and the noirest of protagonists. I remember Elaine Flinn telling me about all the reader emails she got condemning the fact that Molly Doyle smoked. “Doesn’t she know how bad it is for her? She’s got to quit!” ran the virtual outrage against this fictional character. Even J.P. Beaumont walked away from his Makers Mark.


In retreat, some authors have turned to food preferences as a way of describing our characters more fully. Kinsey Millhone adores Quarter Pounders with Cheese and Spenser’s Susan lives on lettuce leaves. I made sure that the blind mechanic in The Fault Tree was an accomplished cook because that was another way to show how capable she was, even in her blindness.


But tread lightly: these little identifying tics – whether they’re food related or something else entirely (like a character cracking his knuckles) – can easily be overdone. I read a book last year where one of the cops was distinguished by his use of plastic wrapped candy. Every time this guy showed up, there went the hand in the pocket, the crinkly paper unwrapping, the pop it in the mouth, the slow sucking sound. Every freaking time. OK. I got it. He’s the cop with the candy habit. I remember him from two pages ago.


Which brings me, with about a mile and a half of dirt road detour, to the food-related, character-defining trait I’ve always wanted to write about.


I want to create a character who cooks food on the manifold in her car’s engine while she’s driving around solving the crime.


Call it Manifold Destiny, if you will (except that that fabulous title has already been taken by a couple of enterprising cooks back in 1989). Car-be-que. Road Kill Dining. MPH (Meals Per Hour) Cookery. Engine Block Eating.The Sedan Sauté. Overdrive Oven. Fourth Gear Gourmet.


Whatever you call it, it says a lot about a character. She plans ahead. She’s prepared for obstructions and reversals. She takes care of herself. She’s agile and quick-witted. She’s frugal: making her gas-dollar go a long way. And she likes to eat.


Or maybe it means she’s an absolute loon, one of those folks with a two-foot machete under the bed and a year’s worth of MRE’s cached in case she has to go live in the mountains after the apocalypse.


Either way, I think it would make for a fairly distinctive character trait.


Can’t you just imagine her wrapping a salmon filet, some sliced onions, garlic and lemons in a foil pouch and tucking it under the air intake hose as she heads out to the cabin where the young girl was last seen? It’s going to be almost dark when she gets there and there probably won’t be a 7-Eleven within thirty miles. She notes the wide tire tracks in the driveway at the cabin (hmmm… it looks like a truck was here), peers in the dusty windows, then settles down on the front porch to enjoy the fragrant dinner she’s just liberated from the engine compartment.


I have no idea whether car cooking can be done with a hybrid or an electric car, but I’m guessing not, or not as well. That means that my protagonist probably will not have participated in the Cash for Clunkers program. She’s driving some beat up old piece of American sheet metal and the only time she changes the oil is when the ratatouille explodes all over the engine block.


I like her already.


So today, in honor of kooky (“cooky?”) protagonists with food/eating idiosyncrasies, I give you my favorite recipes (along with the speed and distance you need to travel) for your next car-be-que:


The basics:


Usually, the hottest part of the engine will be the exhaust manifold. On older cars, the top of the engine block will be a good, sizzling place. Cooler parts of the engine work well for vegetables and fish. Choose places that don’t move when the car is running. (Duh.)


Wrap your soon-to-be-cooked food in aluminum foil and seal it tightly. Then do it again. And again. Triple wrap, with separate sealing folds, is the only way to go.


The package either needs to fit snugly between the manifold and the hood or, better yet, secured to the manifold with a wire. If it’s loose enough to move around, it’s loose enough to fall off.


Road Recipes:


Pork Tenderloin – Cooking distance: 250 miles at highway speed



    1 large pork tenderloin, butterflied

    3 tbsp Dijon mustard

    2 tbsp dry white wine

    1/2 cup red onion, minced

    2 tsp rosemary (fresh), crushed

    Salt & pepper


Blend together the last five ingredients and spread across the inside of the pork tenderloin. Close up the pork, triple-wrap in foil and place on a medium-hot part of the engine. Turn once (125 miles) during cooking.




Cajun Shrimp – Cooking distance: 35 miles at a good city clip or highway speed. No traffic jams or the shrimp will be overdone.



    1 pound large shrimp, in shells.

    1 jalapeño

    2 cloves garlic

    1 medium onion, finely chopped

    Butter or spread

    Salt & pepper


Remove seeds and ribs from jalapeño dice with the onion and garlic. Butter your foil, add the shrimp and cover with your spicy mixture. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper, then triple-wrap and place in a medium part of the engine.




Breakfast To Go – Cooking distance: 55 miles at highway speed




    1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, cubed

    6 eggs    

    Diced Canadian bacon (optional)

    6 empty tuna-fish cans for cooking

    Pinch of cayenne and paprika (optional)

    Butter or spread.

    Salt & pepper.


Wash 6 empty tuna cans and butter the insides. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs into each can and shake to cover the base evenly. Dump out excess. Now cover the bottom with mozzarella (and bacon if desired) then crack an egg on top of each, add seasonings and spices on top, then cover with mozzarella. Wrap cans tightly in foil, place on a hot part of the engine with good contact for the base of each can, and after 55 miles they should be good. If not, keep driving till the cheese has melted.



And what would she cook if she didn’t have to go anywhere that day? Dishwasher Lasagne, of course.


So tell me, ‘Rati. What’s the “incidental information” that attracted you to your favorite sleuth?




42 thoughts on “Cooking Up a Character

  1. Vicky McAulay

    This was the funniest blog I’ve read in a long time. You made my day. You’re also bang on about overdoing it with a character trait. I love your engine chef and hope you do create a project for her.

  2. karen from mentor

    Oh man Louise,
    This was funny. If I actually get to drive down to Columbus to see Tim Hallinan signing I may try roasting a chicken on the way. But it might get dry.The drive takes three hours.

    I love Sam Spade. The first thing that is said about him is "he looks like a blonde Satan" and some pretty unsavory things are said/done by him and just when you’re sure you’ve figured him out then he says about himself "don’t be as certain that I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be" so we go back to wondering how much of this is an act? You have to think about him. You wonder about him long after you’ve read the story. He’s just all the shades of gray wrapped up into one character. He’s not a hero, he’s not a villian. He’s a flawed man with his own moral compass and by his lights he does what’s right.
    I love that. Hammet was a master at giving us likeable unlikeable characters.
    Great post.

  3. Louise Ure

    Cliff Clavin? That wasn’t the love interest I had in mind for her!

    And thanks, Vicki. Nice to see you here.

    Karen, I’m sure we can come up with a suitable three hour meal. Wouldn’t it make a great story when you got there? And "a blond Satan." Damn, that’s good.

  4. JD Rhoades

    Heh. my buddies and I used to do the engine-cooking thing on the way to the beach. Some of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. Of course all the beer consumed on the way down may have affected my judgment as to taste.

  5. Kaye Barley

    this is hysterical!
    I have never ever cared a whit about, or wanted to know where, my manifold might be. Well – thanks to you I’m now dying to know. Wait till I tell Donald what’s cooking where! Ha!
    (yep – I’m thinking you’ve found yourself a terrific new character, Louise – i love her!).

  6. Eika

    May I tell you about one that’s not a slueth?

    Clarence- ‘Chipmunk’- Adleman was his name, I think. It was a middle grade novel I adored in grade two and still have, so forgive me if I got it wrong. He wanted to be a reporter when he grew up, and was on the school newspaper as sports reporter.

    He loved jawbreakers, but had 22 cavities on his last check-up and wasn’t allowed any. At random intervals the plot would be hijacked by his realization that his mom sent his school picture to every store in town so they wouldn’t sell to him, by his desperate longing for his normal after-school Ultra-Quark (which apparently tasted like PB&J), or the few occasions where he forgot he didn’t have one and bit down on nothing.

    The hockey coach was a great one, too. He and his wife ran a health food store, and the realization that they were drinking carob gum hot chocolate with tofu marshmallows was incredible.

  7. Karen Olson

    This is just screaming for a MYTHBUSTERS episode.

    And I think it was on FOOD DETECTIVES that they cooked salmon in the dishwasher.

    I loved Sanders’ Delaney character and I still remember those sandwiches he ate over the kitchen sink. Those were among the very first mysteries that hooked me, and I know it was because of his character.

  8. Louise Ure

    Elka, that must have been the most remarkable character. I adore the notion of the parents sending the kid’s photo to candy stores with a BOLO, like he was some kind of criminal.

    Karen, I’ve actually eaten that Dishwasher Salmon (at somebody else’s house, not mine) and it was good!

  9. Louise Ure

    Yeah, Sylvia, she may not be the healthiest eater around. (Ah, the smell of high octane with your eggs.) But at least it’s not fast food!

    I know what you mean, Chris. I remember putting Russian Dressing on a sandwich in his honor once.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    As a vegetarian, I wonder if there’s a way I can fit a wok into my engine compartment…

    The one character trait that always stood out for me was the way Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer in Dickens’ "Great Expectations," obsessively washed his hands. This was both symbolic and characteristic. A little on-the-nose, but it worked.

  11. Jake Nantz

    It wasn’t food that attracted me to one of my favorite characters, but it was definitely an idiosincracy. Bubba, from Lehane’s Patrick and Angie books. The guy lives in an abandoned warehouse building, and you can secure something with him better than you can a bank…

    Because his "house" has one entire floor wired with land mines.

    Now that’s a personality quirk!

  12. Louise Ure

    Stephen, that brings a whole new meaning to "Wok and Roll." And yeah, the OCD handwashing stuck with me, too.

    Jake, that’s not just a personality quirk, that’s a quirky personality. Don’t you wonder from what midnight reverie some of these characters come?

  13. Karen in Ohio

    Louise, this is a riot. I can so see a sleuth with this quirk. Hey, at least she would have good nutrition, right? No fast food or pickle and potato chip sandwiches for this chick.

    The very first Thanksgiving dinner I ever cooked was in my second or third year of my first marriage. We had a tiny apartment kitchen, and I was determined to make everything my mother usually did, including a pumpkin pie. Naturally, I didn’t cook the pie ahead, so something had to give, and I found directions to cook something (can’t remember what, hey, it was only 37 years ago, give me a break) in the dishwasher. My memory is that whatever it was turned out okay, although I never did repeat that experiment. Surely it could not have been pie, maybe it was a small turkey. I’d never try that today, though.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    This could totally change how people advertise those old muscle cars. "Sure, it only gets 8 miles to the gallon, but there’s enough room for your standard Easter dinner with a side order of pie under the hood. Visit grandma and have dinner cooked when you get there." Add to that the fact that there’s enough room in the trunk for a couple of ice chests, and this whole Cash for Clunkers thing will be a distant memory.

  15. BCB

    Louise, how can I say this politely? You are SO effing weird. I love that about you. Really.

    I grew up in a place (MN) where you need a head bolt heater just to get your car to start on a frigid winter morning. Perhaps recipes for northern locales might include sushi? Or snow cones? Of course, I now live in a place (NC) where it’s so darn hot in the summer you could decrease the cooking time by half and you wouldn’t even need to start the car. Just park it in the sun. [sigh]

    JD, I know you’re making that up. My son and his buddies spend a good deal of time driving to the beach and drinking beer. They can’t afford steak.

  16. kit

    oiy! does this jump start the imagination….
    imagine a car pulled over on the shoulder and smoke is rolling out front…..and having to explain you aren’t having car problems , but burnt supper…yet again.

  17. B.G. Ritts

    What fun, Louise.

    Sander’s ‘Deadly Sins’ books were the only ones of his I enjoyed, and it was Delaney that made them worth the reading. My brother, sister and I used under-the-hood food warming on one of our cross-country trips to the Southwest in the early ’70s. Pari’s Sasha taking hits from a whipped cream can endeared her to me because my sibs and I had been doing that for years.

    I’m looking forward to reading the book about your drive-n-cook protagonist, and hope that part of your marketing tie-in is a cookbook, too.

  18. Karen in Ohio

    It just occurred to me, this could put a whole new spin on the idea of tailgating.

    See what you did, Louise? You have me thinking about this all day long. 😉

  19. Louise Ure

    BCB, anybody who can come up with Mussel Car (Ding! Ding! The winning entry!) has no business calling me weird. Best blog comment ever.

    Kit, I love the idea of a cop or tow truck arriving at the scene of a burnt engine-dinner.

    BG: A cook book! What a howl. And can you imagine the Twitter chronicle of the driving tour itself?

    Karen, it is indeed a new spin on tailgating … if I still did that anymore. These days I prefer my sports the old fashioned way — on a big screen with an instant replay.

    Hey Cornelia! How’s early Fall in the east?

  20. Allison Davis

    Louise, fabulous. Sorry am a day behind – darn work. I put cooking into my first book, likely modeled after Fritz in the Nero Wolfe books, which was my favorite (I have the cookbook). I created a character that is all about food — has the garden, cooks for everyone. I love food in books, and do notice what people eat and drink as part of character. The kind of beer Spenser is drinking, (oh, yes the sandwiches), Mallory’s cooking in O’Connell’s books, etc.

    Karen, for a three hour drive, I am thinking a pot roast with shallots, carrots and potatoes….

  21. Bill Bartmann

    I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…:)


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