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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F. Scott Fitzgerald: Prohibition Ale

F. Scott Fitzgerald - Prohibition Ale

With the internet awash in Gatsby-themed gin rickey and mint julep recipes, F. Scott Fitzgerald has recently reasserted his reputation as “America’s Drunkest Writer.” It might seem like a dubious distinction, but Fitzgerald embraced boozing as a literary badge of honor (after all, he had to overcome some stiff competition for the title). He famously dubbed drink “the writer’s vice,” introducing himself at parties as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic” or (when feeling particularly loquacious) “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation.”

Gin has gone down in history as Fitzgerald’s particular drink of choice (he thought it would be harder to detect on his breath). But while gin was mainly for parties, beer was for every other time of day … including breakfast. It wasn’t a writer’s vice. It was his lifestyle.

When Zelda wrote to Scott in 1930, reminiscing about their early days back in New York, her memories were shaped by the beer they had shared. “We drank Bass Pale Ale,” she wrote. “We drank always.” It was after they moved to Europe that the Fitzgeralds started fueling their revels with hard liquor; good ales and lagers were hard to get in France, although Fitzgerald was pleased to encounter some decent brews on a visit to Germany in 1925.  He marveled at the wealth of “Pilsen and Munich beer of fine quality,” noting, “There is less than there was when I got here.”

When Fitzgerald returned to the U.S., he also returned to beer, his first love—a relationship that continued to carry him as his marriage to Zelda broke down. At his peak intake, he went through 37 bottles a day, using beer as a substitute for water (and if we were all that hydrated, our doctors would be so proud). To Scott, beer didn’t count as a real drink—just like when I was a “vegetarian,” fish didn’t count as real meat. In 1937, when Fitz claims to be “on the complete wagon,” he has to clarify: This time he means “not even beer.”

In the late 1930s, Fitzgerald tried to curb his intake of the beverage that had shaped his life: “I havn’t [sic] even had a glass of beer for a month + shall try it again,” he wrote. But even as he saw its impact on his health, he couldn’t help but indulge in a cold one every now and then. “The fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for with suffering and death perhaps,” he wrote, “but not renunciation.”

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Prohibition Ale Recipe

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Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.

I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.

Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.

Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.

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