How to cook food with your car, according to the 24 Hours of Lemons

There I was, willingly ingesting open-header bacon, sous-vide steak and salmon, along with some funky corn-chips that were produced by combining a crank pulley and a makeshift milling device (welded onto the hood of a car). Some of the food preparation would have sent the FDA into a state of toxic shock, but not once did I witness an ambulance cart anyone off to the emergency room. Having survived, though, I’m still not sure how I got roped into judging the Engine Heat BBQ Cook-off at a recent 24 Hours of LeMons event.

Where to find the heat 

Before I consumed any of the teams’ dishes, I inquired about the most usable automotive heat sources, tricks of the trade in regards to cooking an edible meal, and, more importantly, what types of foods lend themselves to this type of cooking.

The teams unanimously agreed that the best heat source is a vehicle’s exhaust manifolds, the exhaust system itself, and (if done properly) the radiator. There was also an consensus that most of the food preparation needed to be done prior to competition and then cooked slowly and/or re-heated inside a sealed vessel during the event so as to keep it free from outside contamination.

Warming vs. cooking 

So what about the tools of this questionable culinary trade? A variety of contraptions ranging from a thrift store pressure cooker to a homemade rotisserie inside a makeshift hotbox were on hand. While many of these shoddy methods did work, none of what was done was in any way practical or what I consider to be contaminant-free, although all that is far beside the point of this exercise. For most teams, there was also the issue of not being able to monitor or regulate the heat source and as such, check on the progress of a meal as it was being cooked.

One team prepared a bruschetta mix with bacon that was grilled directly atop a set of open headers on a BMW 735i. According to the team, the headers were cleaned with a wire brush and some type of cleaner. The small bite I had tasted OK, but there is no way I would recommend it due to the mass amount of airborne particles that float around under a car hood. Now, granted, some might equate this to cooking on an open BBQ and would argue that the heat generated would kill off any harmful pollutants. There may be some truth to this when cooking outdoors on a regulated wood, gas, or charcoal grille, but I just can’t see that happening whilst frying something openly under the hood of a vehicle.

Teams also noted that while an engine, manifolds, and exhaust do generate a high amount of heat, that they’re better suited to “warm-up” items (think hotdogs, hamburgers, and canned goods) than to cooking them from a raw state. This is particularly true of foods like pork, beef, and fish—all of which must be monitored thoroughly to kill off bacteria.

food cooked on a car engine
Alan Galbraith
LeMons Cook Off final dish
Alan Galbraith

engine cooked tacos
Alan Galbraith
24 Hours Of LeMons Underhood Cook Off sandwiches
Alan Galbraith

Treats via beaters that are heaters 

All that said, we have to commend the sheer imagination and ingenuity of the cook-off competitors. Pulled pork sliders with a carrot and sorrel slaw was the creation from Team Lost Gear. The pork was slow cooked in a hotel-serving dish above the manifolds of the team’s Suzuki Aerio, then served on either a choice of bread or a small potato bun. Team Rotary Rooter was literally rotisserie cooking a pig in a hotbox in the passenger foot well above the Wankel exhaust of an RX-7, until a crash midway through the race meant they were forced to finish the cooking in the paddock. Myopic Motorsports was next with a mid-’90s Ford Thunderbird, blowing away onlookers with a heated milling machine grafted onto the hood, attached to a drive belt from the crank pulley via a pulley on the milling machine. Myopic mixed up what seemed to be cornmeal, flour, water, and a few spices, and made heated corn chips by revving the hell out of the engine. Hat’s off, guys!

While you can, in fact, cook a meal under the hood of your vehicle, it comes with risks, and you have to be a little crazy to go through with it. Next time you want a homemade bite to eat at an enthusiast meet or track day, you’re better off heading to your local outdoor outfitter and purchasing a small propane powered stove. When it comes to your car, stick to driving.

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