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Deep-Fried Fuel: A Biodiesel Kitchen Vision

Sometimes we find the stories, sometimes the stories find us. This is one of the latter.

I was getting my hair cut by Gigi Brestle and asking her what she had done for the Fourth of July. She described her visit to Carl's Corner, a wild truck stop outside of Dallas, where Willie Nelson, Shooter Jennings, Leon Russell and dozens of groups had performed. Kinky Friedman was there campaigning, and every biodiesel entrepreneur known to man was sharing their wares. Truckers were filling their tanks with BioWillie, and the barbecue was good.

We had always wanted to include Willie Nelson's infamous July Fourth picnic in Hidden Kitchens. Suddenly, Brestle was opening our eyes to a world we never considered.

I left the beauty salon, called Nikki Silva, and a few days later The Kitchen Sisters were pulling into Carl's to get the lowdown on this hidden highway kitchen. -- Davia Nelson

Filling Up on BioWillie

Carl's Corner, Texas, is a truck stop between Dallas and Waco, Texas, where a little revolution has begun. Where truckers fill up on American fuel made from farm crops. BioWillie, they call it, because Willie Nelson is the driving force behind this biodiesel vision. His tour bus runs on it, (so do Bonnie Raitt's and Neil Young's) and a brigade of 18-wheelers barreling down the nation's highways; a growing fleet of semis whose exhaust smells like French fries.

With its dancing frogs on top of the truck-stop sign, Carl's is a well-known landmark for motorists who travel Interstate 35 outside of Dallas. Owner Carl Cornelius bought the land in 1979 and incorporated the town in 1986 so he could sell alcohol in an otherwise dry part of Hill County. He's been mayor ever since.

Willie Nelson, a longtime friend of Carl's, sparked the idea of converting Carl's gas pumps to biodiesel. (The singer's wife, Annie, put a bug in his head after she saw some biodiesel cars in Maui.) Willie — an advocate for reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, putting the family farmer back to work and cleaning up the environment — partnered with Carl, Earth BioFuels, and Distribution Drive in 2004 and created the Willie Nelson Biodiesel Company. Carl's Corner became the first truck stop in the nation to sell BioWillie.

Recently the company broke ground for a biodiesel production facility on the land behind the truck stop that will have a capacity to refine 8,000 gallons of fuel a day.

"The idea is for a community-based facility," Nelson says. "This is important because we're starting wars over oil. This will help truckers and small-time farmers that we've neglected for too long."

In Hawaii, Pacific Biodiesel has been converting used cooking oil from restaurants and hotels into a fuel, producing 10,000 gallons a month. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, its most recent client, is switching park vehicles to biodiesel as part of a U.S. Department of Energy program.

And in Houston, Chris Powers, founder of Houston Biodiesel, produces fine-grade biodiesel. He advises, educates, assists, and "takes the mystery out of using biodiesel" by offering homebrew biodiesel classes for alternative-energy enthusiasts. You only need to spend a little time on the Web to find a host of like-minded people pursuing their desire to clean up our environment and lessen dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.

Along the Road

Kinky Friedman is a self-described "compassionate redneck," guitar player, songwriter, mystery writer, entertainer and leader of the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys. He has recorded 10 albums, and written 26 books including The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover and Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned.

His latest stint: political candidate, running for governor of Texas. "Why the hell not?" and "The last independent governor of Texas was Sam Houston. The next will be Kinky Friedman" are just a few of his ear-catching campaign slogans.

Friedman calls Willie Nelson "the hillbilly Dalai Lama," and has drawn a lot of inspiration from Nelson about his positions on biodiesel and renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind farms.

Friedman's newly unveiled energy plan for Texas aims to reverse the state's position as a net importer of energy by expanding existing development of renewable energies while improving conventional power generation. If elected, he plans to fuel the fleet of 35,000 Texas school buses with biodiesel and to appoint Nelson as "chief energy Texas head."

Friedman has a lot of big and wild ideas, including using food to raise funds to fuel his visions. He started an olive oil company while stuck in a limo with his friend Farouk Shami, a Palestinian hairdresser who pioneered the Chi Iron. Farouk & Friedman Olive Oil, "Oil from the Holy Land," is a collaborative effort with proceeds donated to Oasis of Peace, a charity dedicated to creating peace between Arabs and Jews.

Profits from another venture, Kinky Friedman's Private Stock Salsa, "goes directly to the dogs," he says. It supports the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, what Friedman calls a sort of "orphanage, hospice, leprosarium, soup kitchen, halfway house and rescue for stray and abused animals" that he co-founded with his cousin Nancy. It's located on his ranch outside of Medina, Texas.

"I do it because I like stray dogs a lot better than I like fat cats," he says.

A Biodiesel Community

The biodiesel community is such an unusual and far-reaching group of people around the country. It brings together truckers, farmers, celebrities, restaurant people, chemical engineers, journalists, musicians, renewable-energy entrepreneurs, and alternative-energy enthusiasts.

Following is a small smattering of the intriguing characters that have fueled this story. Check out your own community and find out who's digging into grease traps and harvesting algae, willow and grasses to make energy for America.

We tip our hat in thanks to: Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, Carl Cornelius and the truck drivers fueling up at Carl's Corner on I-35, Peter Bell & Rob Reed of Earth Biofuels, Bill Mack, The Satellite Cowboy, The Open Road: America's Trucking Channel on XM 171, David Anderson, Elaine Schock, Michael Pollan, Joe Nick Patoski, Bill Kisinger (The Biodiesel Rebel), Chris Powers and Houston Biodiesel, Chris Saladino at Champ Burgers in Houston, Shannon Davis (Grease Collector), Jason Hardison, WNYC and Neil Golub, Wayne Shulmister and Rex Doane, KERA and Jeff Wittington, David Alvarez, Hawk Mendenhall, Stewart Vanderwilt, and Will Leon, Cal Zecca-Ferris, Laura Stromberg, Gigi Brestle, Bob "Daddy-O" Wade, Roy Garrett & Linda Elaine, The Sons of the Pioneers, Los Straitjackets, and Stephanie Loleng.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.