By Alan Richman
July 11, 1988 12:00 PM

People will go to great lengths for a good meal, but no one goes farther than Bill Scheller and Chris Maynard. Best friends and inventive amateur chefs, they are perfecting car cuisine, the fine art of cooking under the hood while burning up America’s highways. “I’ve often thought of stopping at a full-service gas station and asking if they’d check the game hens,” says Scheller, 38, a writer from Newbury, Mass.

Using engine heat to cook isn’t a completely original idea. Scheller and Maynard were inspired by stories of long-haul truckers heating cans of beef stew on their engine blocks, but they maintain that those pioneering efforts are out of date. “We are more than cooks,” says Maynard, 40, “we’re energy conservationists.” Each day, millions of dollars go up in exhaust smoke, as cars and trucks vent enormous amounts of heat, wasting energy that could be providing hot meals for thousands of hungry drivers. Instead of just fuming in traffic jams, these travelers could be enjoying such M&S specialties as Poached Fish Pontiac (filets sprinkled with dry white wine and shallots) or Safe-At-Any-Speed Stuffed Egg-plant (egg-plant with ground lamb).

Scheller and Maynard prepared their first high-speed feed in the summer of 1984 on a drive home from Canada. In Montreal they bought smoked meat and bread. In Burlington, Vt., they bought aluminum foil. Ninety minutes later they pulled into a rest stop on Interstate 89 and dined on hot smoked meat on rye, warmed under the air filter of Maynard’s diesel Rabbit.

This spring they entered the One Lap of America, an 8,500-mile road rally that begins and ends in Detroit. The event itself was grueling, but their main concern was how to improve on the usual survival fare of peanut butter and tuna fish. “We hadn’t cooked in a car since Montreal, but this seemed the way to avoid dreary food,” Scheller says.

In the weeks before the rally, they upgraded their culinary efforts from mere heating to true cooking. The technique couldn’t be simpler. First gas up. Then preheat the engine. Triple-wrap the food in aluminum foil. Stick it somewhere in the engine, away from moving parts. Drive normally, for the temperature under the hood does not vary with highway speed. (No, you cannot broil a minute steak during a drag race.) Although engine compartments remain relatively cool, some surfaces get hot enough to boil water—or stew fish, chicken and vegetables in their own juices.

Car cookery does have hazards. On a journey from Philadelphia to Richmond to test recipes, Maynard sorrowfully discovered that a bumpy road can send your gourmet dish skittering along the highway and vanishing in your rearview mirror. An experienced mechanic, he knew enough to turn off the ignition before reaching into the engine compartment, since its fan has some of the same characteristics as a food processor. But neither man has ever worried about his food ending up smoked by carbon monoxide or basted with nondetergent oil. They are of a generation enchanted by automobiles, and their faith endures. Says Maynard, trying to be reassuring: “I think the only way most people can get hurt is if they pull off the road to check the pork tenderloin and get creamed by an 18-wheeler.”

The range of dishes available to the short-haul chef is limited by driving time (clearly you can’t cook a turkey on a run to the beach) and the roominess of the engine compartment. Old gas-guzzling V-8s with stove-top expanses uncluttered by pollution-control devices are particularly desirable, but Scheller and Maynard also covet the Toyota Camry for its perfect bun-warming space located right above the front-wheel well. “Almost all cars have some virtues,” Maynard says. “A rear-engine car should be good for a rump roast.”

On a recent drive up the New England coast, they placed a brace of their Corniche Game Hens atop the fuel-injector housing of a 1988 Chrysler New Yorker and lodged a covey of their Thruway Chicken Thighs in various engine crevices. After a four-hour journey along routes 1 and 1A, dinner was served in a hotel parking lot outside Ogunquit, Maine. The game hens were slightly underdone and would have been perfect another town or two up the coast. The chicken thighs were impeccable, so aromatic that sea gulls circled the car and dived for them. Scheller was not surprised. “Hey,” he says, “we’re good cooks.”

For such good cooks, Scheller and Maynard have received surprisingly little encouragement from the women in their lives. Maynard, a professional photographer who lives in New York City with his Airedale, Pluggy, says his ex-wife resented his cooking prowess. Scheller says his second wife, Kay, 41, and their 22-month-old son, David, enjoy his cooking, but Kay isn’t particularly enthusiastic when he rustles something up in the family sedan. “To men, cooking is fun; to me, it’s routine,” she says.

Still, the roving cooks aren’t discouraged, even when less venturesome eaters scoff at such culinary treasures as Veals-on-Wheels. They are working on some new recipes—Chicken à la King of the Road and Soup de Ville show promise—and hope to collaborate on a manual of car cookery. Until that takes place, they know they’ll never go hungry; they’ll just keep putting the pedal to the metal and the torque to the pork.