How Truck Drivers Cook on the Road - The New York Times

2021-12-22 06:26:38 By : Ms. Zoe Zou

Long-haul drivers are under intense pressure this season, but many will carve out the time (and the onboard space) to make steaks, turkeys and charcuterie boards.

Margie Gilles has been cooking in her truck more since the start of the pandemic, and plans to do so for the holidays.  Credit... Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

MADISON, Conn. — Dina McKinney's kitchen looks like something straight out of a home-goods catalog. The spices are neatly organized in glass jars. The countertop is made of a thick walnut Boos block. The backsplash is white-tiled and shiny. The dish towels are seasonally appropriate, adorned with Santas this time of year.

Checking out all the details, you might forget that Ms. McKinney lives in a 14,000-pound semi truck. Her kitchen, crammed into a space behind the front seats of her cab, is all of seven feet long; her combination microwave oven and air fryer is just an arm’s length from the steering wheel.

On a recent night, she was parked at a service plaza off Interstate 95 near the Connecticut coast, plunging an immersion blender into a slow cooker filled with butternut squash soup that she had seasoned with a curry brick, celery and onions and let simmer all day while she drove.

“I want to feel human,” said Ms. McKinney, 56, who lives full time in the truck. “I don’t want to feel deprived of simple pleasures in life.”

That resolve extends to the holidays. Ms. McKinney, who drives all over the country, primarily transporting kitchen cabinetry, will be in her truck this Christmas Day, and has big plans for the occasion. She opened her mini-fridge to reveal a wheel of Brie, destined to be wrapped in puff pastry and baked as a holiday appetizer. She’ll roast a rosemary- and thyme-rubbed turkey leg on her rotisserie, using the drippings to season a turkey breast. Brussels sprouts will be sautéed with bacon on her butane stove. She even has a muffin tin for making sweet-potato soufflés.

Not every truck driver has Ms. McKinney’s elaborate setup. But a number of them are cooking more often in their trucks, out of necessity or a desire for healthier food, or both.

There are more than three million truckers in the United States, and for many of them the holiday season is typically a hard time. Adding to the pressure this year is a nationwide shortage of drivers, and supply-chain bottlenecks that have taxed the patience of shippers and consumers. Many of the truck stops that truckers rely on for eating, resupplying and resting have closed because of the Covid pandemic.

“There is a supply-chain issue, and on top of that, the holiday season,” said Raman Dhillon, the chief executive of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, which represents the significant number of drivers with roots in the Indian state of Punjab. “It is like a double whammy on both sides.”

The crunch is compounded, he added, by working conditions that have long been part of the job: punishing hours, low pay and, for the women who have increasingly joined the ranks, rampant harassment.

In interviews, many long-haul truckers said they were working through the holidays to make extra money and meet the demands of the moment. But they’ll find ways to celebrate, within the limits of their tight spaces and schedules. Their plans include decorations, music and festive meals of roast meats, casseroles and charcuterie boards — most of it prepared, ingeniously, in the confines of the truck.

Margie Gilles, a trucker from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., used to eat half of her meals at truck stops. She quickly grew tired of fast food, and dining options dwindled even more during the pandemic. She said her cooking skills have vastly improved over the last two years.

This Thanksgiving, Ms. Gilles, 55, made a stuffed roast duck, roasted yams, green-bean casserole, cheesy garlic mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce — all using the portable induction cooktop stashed behind the driver’s seat and an air fryer that sits on a shelf where the passenger seat used to be. (She went easy on herself for dessert, and bought a cherry cheesecake.)

For Christmas, she’ll make a leg of lamb and an eggplant casserole. She’ll park at a rest stop and play holiday songs on her violin with the windows down, so other truckers can listen She’ll also offer to share her food with anyone who is around.

Making the meal isn’t too difficult, she said. But doing the dishes is a challenge. “I wipe mine off as best as I can, and then take them into a truck stop and wash my dishes while I take my shower,” she said.

What she’ll miss most is baking cookies with her family. “I would not even consider doing that on my truck,” she said. “Flour going all over, plus the beaters. No.” She gets home once a month, and is able to visit her family in Deerfield Beach, Fla., once or twice a year.

Ms. Gilles predicted that as the pandemic continues, in-truck cooking will become even more prevalent. On the internet, this practice has become a subculture, with dedicated Facebook groups, blogs and TikTok accounts.

Ms. McKinney compared its appeal to that of Van Life — a cultural movement that glamorizes living in a small space.

But while Van Life is often about affluent people deciding to become nomads and document their experiences on social media, Ms. McKinney said truck life is more about being resourceful out of necessity. She became a truck driver four years ago because she felt it was one of the few professions available to her as a woman over 50 without a college degree.

Tamra Fakhoorian, 63, recognizes that ringing in the New Year on a truck will never be the same as celebrating back home in western Kentucky with her nine grown children. “My family knows Mom is on the road,” said Ms. Fakhoorian, who has been driving in the United States and Canada for three years, “so you kind of learn to toughen up a little bit.”

But she wants New Year’s Eve to feel special, so she’ll make a big charcuterie board with cured meats, cheeses and olives. She’ll hang lights around her bed, and record herself talking about her goals for the next year — countries to visit, home improvement projects to undertake.

Ms. Fakhoorian is ambitious with her in-truck cooking year-round, making spring rolls, stuffed peppers and tandoori chicken. Grocery shopping can be difficult for truckers because of parking, so she grows some of her own food. She sprouts mung beans in a drawer directly behind her driver’s seat, and used to hang a pot in the passenger window filled with basil, mint and chives. It was confiscated when she was going through customs on a drive back from Canada.

Depression runs high among truckers during the holidays, said James Wills, a driver from outside Tacoma, Wash., who drives in the Pacific Northwest. “You see all your Facebook friends, and they are posting all these beautifully laid out dinners and pictures of all their family gathered around. You are sitting in your truck by yourself.”

Cooking Christmas dinner helps to alleviate that sadness, he said. This year, he’ll treat himself to a steak cooked on his George Foreman grill — set up outside if the weather is nice, otherwise on a tray between the driver and passenger seats — and enjoy it with instant mashed potatoes and gravy.

Mr. Wills, 50, started cooking more in his truck about five years ago, after he had a heart attack and decided to eat more nutritiously. Prep space is limited in the truck, so he cuts up his vegetables and meats at home and stores them in the freezer — perched on a raised bunk behind the front seats — until he’s ready to cook.

Melissa Cheshire and Vincent Louque, a couple from Medford, Ore., who drive together, don’t mind being on the road during the holidays. They love passing through different cities and seeing them decked out in lights, and stopping to try local specialties, like gumbo in Louisiana or gulf shrimp in Mississippi.

Some truckers will enjoy a holiday meal prepared by someone else. Allie Fanjoy, a cross-border driver from Moncton, New Brunswick, always looks for a rest stop serving Christmas dinner to truck drivers.

“You kind of have a temporary family you are having Christmas dinner with,” said Ms. Fanjoy, 48. Each holiday season, she hangs a stocking in her driver’s-side window, and on Christmas Eve, she pours herself a mug of hot chocolate — a tradition she used to enjoy with her family while driving around neighborhoods looking at holiday lights.

“I can’t really do that in a 75-foot vehicle,” she said, laughing.

Not every trucker celebrates Christmas. Rafique Smith, 33, a driver from Philadelphia, treats it like any other working day, and this year will probably eat a simple meal like pan-seared salmon, or a tuna wrap. (For Ramadan, on the other hand, he breaks his fasts at Outback Steakhouse.)

Sunny Grewal is usually more concerned with going home to Fresno, Calif., for Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated each fall in India and its diaspora. One year, he was called to work during Diwali, so he had shahi paneer and naan from a local restaurant delivered to his truck.

It’s easiest not to plan too much for the holidays, said Mr. Grewal, 32. There’s always a chance he’ll be asked to make a delivery, and his plans will be disrupted.

Ms. McKinney, the driver who stopped to cook in Connecticut, has a more positive outlook. She is considering starting a YouTube channel to teach people how to cook in trucks, and show that trucking can be a great way to live.

“There are so many things we can’t control,” she said, “and so for us to put ourselves in harm’s way on a daily basis multiple times a day, there just has to be a place where I can go where I can have some peace and quiet.”

And what better oasis, she said, than a well-stocked, well-organized kitchen?

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