Dina McKinney’s kitchen looks like something out of a home goods catalog. Spices are neatly organized in glass containers. The worktop is made of a thick block of walnut. White and glossy backsplash. Dish towels are appropriate for the season, and decorated with Santa this time of year.
When checking every detail, you might forget that McKinney lives in a 14,000-pound semi-truck. Her kitchen, crammed into a space behind the cabin’s front seats, is seven feet tall; The combination of microwave oven and air fryer is an arm’s length from the steering wheel.
One recent night, she was parked in a service yard off Interstate 95 near the Connecticut coast, dunking a blender immersed in a slow cooker full of butternut squash soup she had seasoned with curry bricks, celery, and onions and letting it simmer all day while she drove.
“I want to feel human,” said McKinney, 56, who lives in the truck full time. “I don’t want to feel deprived of the simple pleasures in life.”
This design extends to the holidays. McKinney, who drives around the country, primarily hauling kitchen cabinets, will be in her truck on Christmas Day and has big plans for the occasion. She opened her mini fridge to reveal a wheel of brie, destined to be rolled in puff pastry and baked as a holiday appetizer. Roast a turkey leg with rosemary and thyme on the grill, using the broth to season the turkey breast. Brussels sprouts with bacon will be sautéed on the butane stove. She even owns a muffin pan for making sweet potato souffles.
Not every truck driver has an elaborate McKinney setup. But a number of them cook a lot in their trucks – out of necessity, desire for healthy food, or both.
There are more than 3 million truck drivers in the United States, and for many of them, the holiday season is usually a rough time. Adding to the pressure this year has been a nationwide shortage of drivers, and supply chain bottlenecks that have taxed the patience of shippers and consumers. Several truck stops that truck drivers rely on for food, resupply and rest have closed due to the COVID pandemic.
“There is an issue with the supply chain and, on top of that, the holiday season,” said Raman Dhillon, chief executive of the Punjabi Truck Association of North America, which represents a large number of drivers with roots in the Indian state of Punjab. “It’s like a double whammy on both sides.”
He added that the crisis is being exacerbated by working conditions that have always been part of the job: punishing hours, low wages and, for women increasingly joining the ranks, rampant harassment.
In interviews, many long-distance truck drivers said they worked during the holidays to earn extra money and meet the demands of the moment. But they will find ways to celebrate, within tight spaces and schedules. Their plans include decorations, music, and festive meals of grilled meats, heat-resistant platters, and plates of charcuterie—most of which are masterfully prepared in the confines of the truck.
Margie Gill, a truck driver from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, used to eat half of her meals at truck stops. I quickly got tired of junk food, and food options dwindled even further during the pandemic. She said that her cooking skills have improved greatly over the past two years.
This Thanksgiving, Jill, 55, is making stuffed roast duck, roasted potatoes, green bean casserole, and cheesy mashed potatoes with cranberry sauce — all using a portable induction stove hidden behind the driver’s seat and an air fryer that sits on the rack where the passenger seat used to be . (She was easy on herself for dessert and bought a cherry cheesecake.)
At Christmas, you’ll make a leg of lamb and an eggplant casserole. She’ll stop at a break and play holiday songs on her violin with the windows closed so other truck drivers can listen. She will also offer to share her food with anyone around her.
She said preparing the meal is not difficult. But washing the dishes is a challenge. “I wipe it as best I can and then take it to a truck stop and wash my dishes while I shower,” she said.
What she will miss the most is baking cookies with her family. “I wouldn’t even consider doing this on my truck,” she said. “Flour is everywhere, in addition to the rackets. No.” She comes home once a month and can visit her family in Deerfield Beach, Florida, once or twice a year.
Gill predicted that as the pandemic continued, cooking inside trucks would become more prevalent. Online, this practice has become a subculture, with dedicated Facebook groups, blogs, and TikTok accounts.
McKinney compared its allure to that of the so-called Van Life – a cultural movement that enchants life in a small space.
But while van life often revolves around wealthy people who decide to become nomads and document their experiences on social media, McKinney said truck lives are more about being stuntmen out of necessity. She became a truck driver four years ago because she felt it was one of the few careers available to her as a woman over 50 without a college degree.
Tamra Fakhourian, 63, knows that ringing the New Year on a truck will never be like celebrating homecoming in western Kentucky with her nine grown children. “My family knows my mom is on the road, so you have to learn to be a little stronger,” said Fakhourian, who has been driving in the US and Canada for three years.
But she wants New Year’s Eve to feel special, so she’ll make a large charcuterie board with cured meats, cheese, 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 do.
Fakhourian is ambitious with it cooking inside the truck all year round, making spring rolls, stuffed peppers and tandoori chicken. Grocery shopping can be difficult for truck drivers because of the parking, so she grows some of her own food. Mung beans sprout in a drawer just behind the 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 her way back from Canada.
James Wells, a driver outside of Tacoma, Washington, who drives in the Pacific Northwest, said depression builds among truck drivers during the holidays. “You see all your Facebook friends, and they’re posting all these beautifully planned dinners and pictures of all their family members huddled around. You’re sitting in your truck all by yourself.”
Cooking Christmas dinner, he said, helps alleviate that grief. This year, he’ll treat himself to steak cooked on his own George Foreman grill — set up outside if the weather’s nice, or on a tray between the driver and passenger seats — and enjoy it with instant mashed potatoes and gravy.
Wells, 50, started cooking more in his truck about five years ago, after he had a heart attack and decided to eat more nutrients. Prep space is limited in the truck, so he chops vegetables and meats at home and stores them in the freezer—sitting on a raised bed behind the front seats—until he’s ready to cook.
Melissa Cheshire and Vincent Locke, a couple from Medford, OR, who drive together, don’t mind hitting the road during the holidays. They love to pass through different cities and see them adorned with lights, stopping by to try local specialties, like gumbo in Louisiana or Gulf shrimp in Mississippi.
Some truck drivers will enjoy a holiday meal prepared by someone else. Allie Fanjoy, a cross-country driver from Moncton, New Brunswick, is always looking for a place to relax serving Christmas dinner to truck drivers.
“You have a makeshift family having Christmas dinner with them,” said the 48-year-old. A tradition she used to enjoy with her family while driving around the neighborhoods in search of holiday lights.
“I can’t do that in a 75-foot vehicle,” she said with a laugh.
Not every truck driver celebrates Christmas. Companion Smith, 33, a driver from Philadelphia, treats him like any other work day, and this year he will likely eat a simple meal like grilled salmon or tuna rolls. (As for Ramadan, it breaks the fast at Outback Steakhouse.)
Sunny Grewal is usually more interested in going home to Fresno for Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated every autumn 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 easier not to plan so much for the holidays, said Grewal, 32. There is always a chance that he will be asked to make a delivery, and his plans will be disrupted.
McKinney, the driver who stopped to cook in Connecticut, has a more positive outlook. She’s thinking of creating a YouTube channel to teach people how to cook in trucks and to show that trucking can be a great way to live.
She said, “There are a lot of things we can’t control, and so in order to put ourselves in harm’s way on a daily basis several times a day, there has to be a place where I can go where I can get some peace and quiet.”
And what better oasis, she said, than a well-stocked and well-organised kitchen?
Krishna writes for the New York Times, where this article originally appeared.