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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Allen Ginsberg: Aloo Gobi

When I was a kid, I hated lamb. Well, let me clarify: My mother hated lamb, so I hated lamb. I had never actually tasted it, since it was barred from our home, but that was entirely irrelevant to my 10-year-old self. My mom seemed to be right about everything else, so why would she be wrong about lamb?

It wasn’t until I moved away—with an apartment of my own and a boyfriend who tore into lamb like a rabid chupacabra—that I actually took a bite. It was at an Indian restaurant, another territory where my family had always been cautious. We’d consider the menu at length: lots of thoughtful nodding with a smattering of “hmm”s. Then we’d order the same chicken tikka masala and garlic naan we always did.

Allen Ginsberg had our number. Traveling around India in the 1960s, practicing Buddhism and Krishnaism, Ginsberg was eager to bring his new lifestyle to the States. He had just one concern, he told Hare Krishna founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Could Americans handle the food?

Allen Ginsberg: So my question is this: … Is this something that a large mass of people can enter into?
Srila Prabhupada: In time, yes. Why not? …
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what it requires is an adaptation to Indian dress and
Srila Prabhupada: That is not very important.
Allen Ginsberg: And an adaptation to Indian food. …
Srila Prabhupada: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the curried vegetable dishes.

Although Ginsberg seems skeptical that potential converts could handle the Hare Krishna diet, he was a culinary adventurer himself. In his letters, Ginsberg lists dozens of local delicacies he sampled over the course of his wanderings, like a beat-poet Anthony Bourdain. In Hong Kong, he recommends the 100-year eggs; in Korea, try the snail and cuttlefish dish; in Denver, check out the all-organic Mercury Cafe (where you could catch him singing the occasional set with his rock band).

But even Ginsberg had his own culinary prejudices to overcome. In a letter to the poet Gary Snyder, he expressed surprise at how well he ate in India. “Food quite good … Bombay has great food all over. I’ve even drunk water practically all over and not been bugged. And everybody tells me it was instant death.”

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