Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

In 1946, two 20-somethings met in a bookstore: he, an aspiring writer; she, the bookseller who sold him a copy of Best American Short Stories. “He carried a briefcase and wore a trenchcoat on a clear day, so I was immediately suspicious,” she recalled. Instead of stealing paperbacks, he invited her to lunch. But when Ray Bradbury married Maggie McClure a year later, he had only $8 in the bank. Suddenly, stealing books didn’t seem so implausible—and any future lunches would have to be done on the cheap.

Luckily, Bradbury’s tastes had always tended toward the economical. As a kid, he followed a strict (if not exactly spartan) diet of hamburgers, egg sandwiches and tomato soup. Eventually he expanded his dietary repertoire (“How many years I wasted not trying different foods, when they were so good,” he later told his family). But his love of tomato soup endured … not least because it fit his meager budget.

In their $30-a-month apartment in Venice, California, Bradbury cooked for Maggie in classic newlywed style—cracking open a can. “I did my writing at home, cleaned the house, and usually prepared dinner for us. It was usually Campbell’s soup,” he wrote. On special occasions, he would head to Clifton’s Cafeteria, a local haunt that attracted the starving-artist crowd by insisting that no one would be turned away hungry. Bradbury quickly became a fixture at the restaurant, holding regular meetings of the Science Fiction Society or just arriving alone, slurping his soup in the corner booth while drinking bottomless glasses of complimentary limeade.

Yet, even as Bradbury’s fame and bank account grew, he remained loyal to his favorite dish, ordering cans of soup by the case. “At one time, I had planned to have my ashes put into a Campbell’s tomato soup can and then have it planted on Mars,” he told Playboy in 1996, half a century after that first fateful date with Maggie. Through years of Campbell’s and cafeterias, she was the only woman he ever dated. In love, and in lunch, Bradbury’s taste never changed.

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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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James Joyce: Rigatoni Con Stracotto

James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

Rigatoni con Stracatto Recipe

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Franz Kafka: Potato Mushroom Soup

Franz Kafka - Potato Mushroom Soup

Another year, another fad diet. Every January, we’re told to go Paleo, go South Beach, go Atkins. It’s a culinary labyrinth that has existed for centuries—and Franz Kafka was an early captive.

Kafka famously followed a strict vegetarian regime; in an anecdote from friend and biographer Max Brod, Kafka proudly discussed his diet choices with a fish in the Berlin aquarium, saying, “Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.” But if you think Kafka eschewed meat for moral reasons, think again. It was all a fad.

“Franz’s attitude toward the ‘natural health methods’ … was one of intense interest,” wrote Brod, and vegetarianism was only one of the trends that held Kafka in thrall. He was also a convert to “fletcherizing,” a British craze from the turn of the 20th century that advocated chewing each bite of food 32 times before swallowing. I saw the same thing on an episode of Sex and the City 100 years later, proving that some diets really never die.

Plus, meat is just so embarrassing when it gets stuck in your teeth, am I right? “Meat is the one thing that is so stringy that it can be removed only with great difficulty,” Kafka wrote disgustedly, “and even then not at once and not completely.” It’s a comment that could just as well have come from the title character in “A Hunger Artist,” who fasts because he can’t find food that he likes.

But Kafka relished his meals, particularly strawberries and cherries (which he would take several minutes just to smell before eating). “How he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” sighed his lover Dora Diamant. Brod agreed: “Although he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, he knew how to appreciate the pleasures of beer, wine and meat.” Kafka would “take a sniff of drinks sometimes and praise their wonderful aroma.”

Kafka and Diamant dreamed of traveling to Israel together and opening a restaurant: she in the kitchen, he in the front. They never specified in their letters what type of restaurant it might be. But I wouldn’t go there for the steak.

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Potato Mushroom Soup (Bramboracka) Recipe

 

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Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma

You can’t escape food when reading Salman Rushdie. Start looking and suddenly it’s everywhere: Pyarelal’s saffron pulao in Shalimar the Clown, Sisodia’s feast in The Satanic Verses, the grandmother’s pantry in Midnight’s Children.

It’s the same with the real Rushdie; he’s a man surrounded by food. His marriage to Top Chef and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi is an obvious connection. But so is his involvement with At Vermilion, the Manhattan restaurant that once offered a tasting menu devoted to his work (complete with autographed novel to take home, goodie bag style). You think you’re reading an article about the fatwa and boom —out of the blue, it links to the author’s recipe for curry. Food just follows him.

Why Rushdie decided to give Parade magazine his korma recipe, I’ll never know (it doesn’t quite jibe with other articles on offer: “Fire Up the Griddle! Pancakes for Every Meal of the Day”). But his description of the family history behind the dish (it’s his son’s favorite as well) reminds me why food plays such a crucial role in his novels: Community comes together over a good meal.

Korma was a favorite dish in Midnight’s Children, too, but in a less heartwarming, more threatening context. “This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot,” that grandmother says, “and if just once I catch you in here, whatsitsname, I’ll push your head into it, add some dahi, and make, whatsitsname, a korma.” I decided to go with Rushdie’s version of the recipe instead – more lamb, less dismemberment.

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Zora Neale Hurston: Chicken Consommé

“So, what’s your backup plan?”

Everyone who lusts after a job in some creative field runs into this inevitable question. When I was 10, I told my mother I was destined for Broadway. When pressed for a possible fallback, I shrugged and said I could always go into journalism. She has worried about me ever since.

In the fall of 1931, Zora Neale Hurston was working on several projects, all of them artsy and none of them lucrative: short stories, concerts, book proposals. Recently divorced and without a steady income, she was being supported by her godmother, the philanthropist and New York socialite Charlotte Osgoode Mason. Mason and my mother would have had a lot to talk about. “I know that you worry about my future,” Hurston wrote to her godmother. “Therefore, if I had a paying business—which after all could not take up a great deal of my time,—I’d cease to be a problem.”

That’s how she came up with her backup plan to become “New York’s Chicken Specialist.”

Like any good start-up entrepreneur, Hurston did her research. She surveyed the local competition: “I have been sampling the chicken soups already on the market and find not one really fine one.” She outlined the business model: Ever practical, she would use all parts of the bird. The bones would be for soup. The chicken breasts, “they’d be my salad material. The other part of the chicken would emerge as a la king.”

But despite her concessions toward her godmother and her own pragmatism, Hurston never wavered in her assurance about her real talent. “I firmly believe that I shall succeed as a writer, but the time element is important,” she wrote to Mason. “Besides I like to cook.”

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