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Dan Dresser (left) and Jason Wussow, who owns Beaner's Central, cook meals on the engine of this banged-up Toyota. They made a film about one of their car trips and are planning another. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Engine cooktop inspires Duluth men to make road-trip movie

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Earlier this year when Dan Dresser had his 1989 Toyota Camry in for an oil change, the mechanics noticed some unusual oil spills. They found cooking oil -- rather than engine oil -- spattered on the car's motor.

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Dresser wasn't surprised. He'd chosen the car because, in addition to its good gas mileage, it was good for cooking."I confess: I always look at the manifold to see if it's good for cooking or not," he said, noting that he'd driven a Toyota Celica to California about 10 years ago and made an apple pie, among other things, during the drive. "Toyotas that were made between 1987 and 1992, there's something about the design of the exhaust manifold -- it's perfect for cooking."

Dresser was searching for such a Toyota because he and Jason Wussow, who owns Beaner's Central coffee shop, were driving to Taos, N.M., and wanted to turn their cross-country trip into a culinary adventure. Once they rebuilt the car -- and christened it "Ellen" -- Wussow and Dresser vowed that any hot meals would be cooked on the manifold of the Camry.

Add a borrowed video camera to the adventure and you get "Cooking on the Car, Episode 1." It's an 18-minute film -- distilled from about nine hours of video, said editor Mike Savage -- about the pair's March 2008 road trip.

"Cooking on the Car" is, by all accounts, a hilarious movie featuring recipes and a great scene where Dresser's cousin and her cat unsuccessfully attempt to choke down one of the Northlanders' only failures, a too-heavily marinated venison stew.

The pair will begin filming "Cooking on the Car, Episode 2" when they leave for California Dec. 26. The official "launch" party and fundraiser for the next episode is todayat Beaner's in West Duluth, when Mayor Don Ness and his wife, Laura Ness, will dine on a manifold meal with another couple. Aside from the celebrity meal, there will be a movie showing, live music and copies of "Dining on the Car, Episode 1" for sale.

"You can cook almost anything you'd do in a Dutch oven or Crock-Pot," Wussow said, rattling off a list of meals the duo concocted as they traveled across the U.S. "We did blueberry muffins, mahi mahi in white sauce, a pheasant and mango-lime rub over basmati rice. That was a two-course meal: We cooked the rice first, then stuck it under the seat with the heat on and cooked the pheasant."

Dresser and Wussow cooked the food while they drove. The cooking takes place in a loaf pan covered with aluminum foil, which is placed on the engine manifold. To check or stir the dish, the driver must pull off the road and pop the hood. As a result, it's a very safe process, unlike texting or talking on the phone while driving. And, for those who are wondering, Dresser and Wussow did not dine on any road kill. The venison and pheasant were donated to the cause.

The average one-course meal takes about 50 to 60 minutes to cook, Dresser said. Winter weather, however, lengthens cooking time.

"That first morning we left, it was 15 below," Dresser said. "So our venison quiche took more like an hour and a half. But it was extraordinary quiche."

The men said they work well together. Dresser brings previous car-cooking experience to the table, as well as mechanical know-how, while Wussow is an accomplished chef. It helps that both are musicians who are happy to play the occasional gig along the way, with a sense of adventure and the absurd.

They're hoping to amp up the publicity for their next trip, Wussow said, so they're taking a few more people to help with filming and daily online updates. They're also hoping at least one West Coast talk show host will take them up on a car cook-off.

"We're trying to find anyone who has some Hollywood contacts," Wussow said. "We don't know if it's industry 'ins' that gets you the attention, or is it weird dorky larks? We're going with weird dorky larks."

Possibilities include the female TV talk-show host who shares the name of the car and Jay Leno, whose personal car collection probably holds a good cooking vehicle. They've written to the Leno and DeGeneres shows and several more.

Go to cookingonthecar.com for more information or to watch Episode 1. Buy a copy at Beaner's or online at savpress.com. For more recipe ideas, check out "Manifold Destiny" by Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller. And Wussow asks that anyone with a talk-show contact or chef friends who work between Duluth and California and who might be up for a car cook-off, to call him at Beaner's, (218) 624-5957.

IF YOU GO

The launch party for "Cooking on the Car, Episode 2" starts 7 p.m. Friday at Beaner's Central, 324 N. Central Ave., Duluth. Traveling car chefs Dan Dresser and Jason Wussow will serve Mayor Don Ness and his wife, Laura Ness, a meal cooked on the engine of their Toyota Camry. There will be a showing of "Episode 1" and live music. Cover charge is $5, or buy a $10 DVD of "Episode 1" and get in free. Go to cookingonthecar.com for more information.

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