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Confessions of eating while driving in L.A.: The good, the bad and the messy

Can you eat a piece of cake in your car without making a total mess? I'm about to find out.
(Shelby Grad / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Sunday, June 9. Here’s what you need to know to start your weekend:

L.A. has always been the city of eating in your car

When I got my driver’s license in the mid-1980s, it took me less than an hour to drive through L.A.’s smoggy summer haze and eat my first meal in the car.

For me, it was a rite of passage — and I was very good at it. Well before cup holders became a thing, I figured out how to lodge a large soft drink between my seat and the emergency brake. I usually had a copy of the Los Angeles Times handy, using it to even out the sloping surface of my Datsun’s bucket seat so I could dip my McNuggets in barbecue sauce without them flying around when I hit a pothole.

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I always had an old dish rag to hold the messy options: a slice of pizza, dim sum or KFC drumsticks, which I’d buy in fours. My trusty ballpoint pen was a great tool to poke into the car’s crooks and crevices to expose the errant French fry or paper straw wrapping I knew were hidden and could be found by unwitting passengers.

In this one part of my life, I feel like a trailblazer, even a risk-taker.

There is now a cottage industry of products to make eating in your car easier — including French fry holders, dipping sauce clips, dining trays that lock onto your steering wheel and even mini refrigerators.

The latest addition can be found in Chinatown, from Heather Wong, who owns the Flouring L.A. bakery. As Times food columnist Jenn Harris described it, the next big idea is car cakes: “petite rectangles of layered cake nestled into sleeves of white parchment paper that protect your fingers.” Flavors include carrot cake, chocolate, ube and coconut, and passion fruit.

A selection of cake bars from Flouring L.A. in Chinatown.
A selection of cake bars from Flouring L.A. in Chinatown.
(Heather Wong)

Wong told Harris she got the idea during the pandemic when customers came for curbside pickup. But it also offers a less messy way to eat cake in your car.

Some say the pandemic gave car eating a new legion of fans.

One fast-food aficionado at Car and Driver offered a list of the best options for dining in your car (McDonald’s cheeseburgers, Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches, Starbucks Bacon and Gouda sandwiches) and the worst (most everything from Panda Express and Subway, plus Taco Bell’s Crunchy Taco Supreme).

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Who knew Burger King’s French toast sticks and their “dripless sauce” were invented to be eaten in the car?

There have long been safety — and sanitary — concerns about eating while driving. Many establishments recommend against it, and federal transportation officials say it is a leading cause of distracted driving and therefore crashes.

Those warnings are all legit. But let’s face it: Most of us have done it, especially in a gridlocked place like L.A. where multitasking during your commute is essential. In 2002, Times reporter Hugo Martín offered a list of the most dangerous foods to eat in your car:

  • Coffee (It is a popular in-car beverage that is served piping hot and can leave unsightly stains.)
  • Hot soup (It is also served hot and is difficult to eat while driving.)
  • Tacos (They tend to fall apart with each bite, sending the contents all over the car.)
  • Chili (Chili-covered foods can drip and spill with the slightest bump in the road.)
  • Hamburgers (Special sauces and greasy meat juices can turn a $5 meal into a $500 auto repair bill.)
  • Barbecued foods (Some finger-licking good foods are best eaten over a sink.)
  • Fried chicken (Drivers often try to clean their grease-covered hands immediately.)
  • Jelly- and cream-filled doughnuts (Oozing jelly seems magnetically drawn to a driver’s lap.)
  • Soft drinks (Another popular driving drink that can spill at the slightest miscue.)
  • Chocolate (Sticky and messy, it prompts drivers to try to clean up immediately.)
FILE - A McDonald's restaurant
A McDonald’s restaurant.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

I will admit I’ve partaken in all 10, as well as a slab of baby-back ribs dripping with sauce on the 710 Freeway that left a red mark of shame on my beige roof liner, which I could never get out despite a trip to the auto detailer.

Flouring L.A.’s new innovation intrigued me. So on Wednesday, I pointed my Toyota toward Chinatown and mapped out my cake-eating strategy. Unfortunately, the bakery was closed. But a block away, the landmark Phoenix Bakery was bustling with customers. I ordered a slice of blueberry layer cake, which they placed atop a paper wrapper that looked like a perfect handle.

The friendly cashier offered me a fork, but I politely declined (she seemed a bit puzzled). I figured this would be a hands-only test operation.

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With all the purple frosting precariously holding together two pieces of cake, driving while I ate seemed risky. So back in my car, I kept the engine off and grabbed the slice by the paper bottom and bit in.

So far so good.

The cake is gone, but the damage is done.
The cake is gone, but the damage is done.
(Shelby Grad / Los Angeles Times)

The paper kept my hands clean, but the cake was pretty unstable. The first few bites were fine, but eventually, the middle frosting layer gave way and my hand got doused with the cream icing. The top of my steering wheel was collateral damage, along with my seat belt. It took two antibacterial wipes to clean up the mess. (Jenn Harris noted that Flouring L.A.’s car cake had about a quarter-inch of frosting, which she described as perfect: “There will be no frosting scraping with your car cake.”)

Despite the small mess, I left Chinatown feeling pretty good, like I once again was ahead of the curve in the art of auto eating. Then a friend pointed me to TikTok, where people have made eating cake in your car into an art.

But the one thing they all have in common.

They all use a fork.

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For your weekend

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Have a great weekend, from the Essential California team

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Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor

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