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:
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.
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.
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
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?