Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

As a Californian living in New York City, I’ve learned there are two things that lead to inevitable disappointment: walking without an umbrella in the summer, and Mexican food. I know you’re trying, New York. It’s cute. But whenever I bring East Coast friends to visit the hole-in-the-wall taco shop of my childhood, the scales fall from their eyes. It’s like they’re finally seeing the world in living color, when all they’ve ever known was that weird “Kelvin” filter on Instagram.

I can only imagine that Thomas Pynchon felt the same way when he first tried the real deal in his late 20s. Growing up on Long Island and studying at Cornell, Pynchon fled New York for the West Coast in 1960. After spending a few years in Seattle working for Boeing, he headed south toward California and Mexico … where he famously went silent, gaining a reputation as a literary recluse, refusing to have his picture taken or to speak with the media. What was he doing out there? We may never know entirely. But one thing’s for sure: He was eating.

Mexican food slowly began appearing in Pynchon’s novels, starting in The Crying of Lot 49 and cropping up in nearly every book since: the San Gabriel taco stand in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tajo Carajo in Vineland, and the delightful Lupita’s in Against the Day, where customers “fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely-known brain tacos, [and] bottles of home-brewed beer.”

Over time, Pynchon’s descriptions of food become more lavish, loving, even tinged with danger. Inherent Vice features a whopping meal that includes “enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas, and tamales for two called El Atomico, whose entry on the menu carried a footnote disclaiming legal responsibility.” Following the same trend, I can only expect Pynchon’s new book, Bleeding Edge, will feature a crime scene involving an unusually spicy torta.

Why was Mexican food so pervasive in Pynchon’s work? Let’s just say he had done plenty of “research” on the subject. In his friends’ memories, he was always seeking his next meal, “wearing an old red hunting-jacket and sunglasses, doting on Mexican food at a taco stand.” Throughout the late 60s and 70s, Pynchon became a regular at El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach (it’s still open today, if you want to follow in his culinary footsteps). Neighbors would frequently spot him chowing down—the notorious hermit, lured into public by a burrito.

It’s easy to think of food in simple nutritional terms: energy in, energy out. But that doesn’t account for its remarkable ability to revive us in other ways. We each have certain dishes that make us feel more like ourselves. Richard Fariña, Pynchon’s close friend from college, recalls the two of them buying tacos and beer in California, “Pynchon coming to life with the tacos, not having had any Mexican food in a couple of weeks.” On mornings when you’re not yet ready to face the day, head to the kitchen and see what inspires you. Sometimes, all it takes to re-enter the world is a really good meal.

Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos RecipeSlow Cooker Braised Chicken Tacos

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Roald Dahl: Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake

Roald Dahl: Homemade Frozen Kit-Kat Cake

As I was growing up, no book did more to encourage my incipient interest in dessert than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka’s world offered a blissful alternate universe, where candy was not dangerous, or merely delicious, but magical. How different this is from the food corporations we hear about today—the ones that have conspired to hook us on salt, sugar and fat. There aren’t many Wonkas in the world anymore; we’re in a food world run by Slugworths.

Roald Dahl himself was the industry’s perfect victim, growing up just as large chocolate companies were asserting their influence. When he was born, in 1916, “The chocolate revolution had not begun,” he wrote in the Sunday Magazine. “There were very few delicious chocolate bars to tempt us.” But soon, chocolate was everywhere—and nowhere was it more influential than in Dahl’s own backyard. His boarding school, Repton, was right down the road from the Cadbury chocolate factory, which would frequently enlist the boys to test new creations, mailing them boxes of bars to try.

The golden age, according to Dahl, was from 1930-37; that’s when the world saw the debut of the Mars Bar, Rolos and (Dahl’s personal favorite) the Kit-Kat. Until his death, in 1990, Dahl would eat at least one Kit-Kat every day. (His dog, Chopper, preferred Smarties, eating four after lunch and four after dinner) He would save their silver wrappers, adding them to a giant foil ball on his desk, where visitors to the Dahl house can still see it today.

Dahl was hooked early—but he began to notice the candy industry’s increasing interest in the “bland, almost tasteless” tastes the public preferred. His special disdain was reserved for one of Cadbury’s bestsellers, “the blandest and most disgusting thing of all,” the Crème Egg. These “fondant-filled horrors” didn’t have any of the surprises—the delightful crunch, the bright colors, the sharp flavors—of Dahl’s beloved bars. “Nobody I know eats them. But somebody obviously does, by the bucketful.”

Because it wasn’t sugar that hooked Dahl, after all; it was food’s magical ability to amaze, to astonish, to transform. When Dahl’s first wife fell ill, he would surprise her at breakfast with pink milk, because—why not pink milk? Like Wonka, Dahl saw how food opens us to a world of new sensations, new possibilities, new sensations. With every new taste, childlike, we encounter a bit of wonder.

Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake Recipe

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