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.
While all sorts of Mexican dishes appear in Pynchon’s fiction, two occur so frequently, they may as well be lead characters: tacos and beer. They’re an ideal pair, so why keep them apart until dinner is served? Better to let them meet and make friends early on.
Beer-braising is one of my favorite ways to prepare chicken, which can all too easily turn dry or bland. This slow-cooker recipe solves both problems, with a smokiness from the chipotle and a sweetness from the spices that turn the leftover broth into another meal in itself. Use it to sauté some mushrooms the next day, pour the whole thing over a piece of crusty bread, add a green salad, and you’ll have another dinner ready to go—one that’s worth staying home for.
3 tablespoons canola or olive oil, divided
1 pound boned, skinned chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chile powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup Mexican beer
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 chipotle chile
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
Soft taco shells
1. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Add to pan and cook until chicken is lightly golden but not cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove from pan and add to the bowl of a slow cooker.
2. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet over medium heat. Add onion and saute until slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Add cumin, chile powder and garlic, and let cook another 2 minutes.
3. Add chicken broth to the skillet, scraping the browned onion off the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and pour mixture into slow cooker. Add beer, tomato paste, chipotle chile, cinnamon stick and star anise.
4. Cook on high for 3 hours. Uncover, break chicken apart with a fork, then cover and cook 1 hour more.
5. Remove chicken from braising liquid. Add to taco shells and garnish with shallots, cilantro and cheese. Squeeze lime wedge over and enjoy with several beers.