It’s Fast Food Week! Too bad you’re not single.
How much mileage can there be in a literary magazine whose raison d’être is just … Taco Bell? At least six issues, with more to come, it seems. The Taco Bell Quarterly, started by M.M. Carrigan in 2019, is exactly what it sounds like: It is a literary journal in which the pieces are all, to some degree, about Taco Bell. But they’re also about everything that literature is always about: love, loss, connection and the lack of it, pain and joy, memory and forgetting, yada yada yada. It’s an experiment with the very notion of a prompt. The prompt is just Taco Bell, and it has been for six whole issues.
When I first learned about the journal, I appreciated the meeting of high and low culture, the anarchic nature of the material it published. It seemed like a gentle but justified “fuck you” to the stuffiness of many literary organizations. There is a piece called “A Story Which Is Fiction in Case My Dad Reads It,” which is about trying to pee in a Baja Blast cup in the back of their dad’s car. There have been reproductions of artwork made using Taco Bell nacho cheese as paint, and a broken chip as a paintbrush, something that bills itself as “Tacorotica,” a poem about learning that your car is on fire outside a Taco Bell. The latest issue has a painting of a dog smoking a cigarette and wearing a Taco Bell cap, and Taco Bell Quarterly No. 4 had on its cover the iconic poster from Jaws, in which the shark is angled up, about to eat not a woman, but a copy of the Paris Review.
Yet I had a feeling I wasn’t quite understanding—indeed couldn’t quite understand—the Taco Bell Quarterly. We have Taco Bell in England, where I live. The first branches landed here about a decade ago, but they don’t form part of the core fast-food scene in this country. I have been to one once, in the early hours of the morning, because a friend who lived in America at the time was over and insisted, after four to eight drinks, that we go there. I don’t remember what I ordered or how it tasted. It remains something of a novelty, a consciously offbeat choice where others might be getting a McDonald’s or fried chicken.
What is it about Taco Bell that speaks to the American imagination enough to elicit thousands upon thousands of submissions to a literary journal? What is this almost mythic-seeming place? For whom does the purple bell toll?
I got on the phone with Carrigan, the magazine’s “editor Grande Supreme,” to find out what fast food has to do with literature, and what keeps fans crawling back into the soft-shelled embrace of Taco Bell. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Imogen West-Knights: Imagine that I am an alien, which I sort of am for these purposes. What is Taco Bell?
M.M. Carrigan: OK, wow. Well, Taco Bell is just a very American fast-food concept. And when something is very American, it just goes 100 times balls-to-the-wall, and everyone’s kind of obsessed. It’s also just really good. It’s salty, it’s fatty, it’s cheesy.
What does it mean for something to be “very American” in that way?
It’s very commodified, it’s selling itself, it’s symbiotic with its audience, it’s feeding off of them. And it’s also trying to package all of that into something totally new and extreme and unique.
If you were to say the words Taco Bell to an average American, what is the picture in their mind? What are they thinking of?
I kind of ask that question as the writing prompt. And people deliver me so many different ideas of what they think of when they think of Taco Bell. It could be the little plush Chihuahuas, or it could be the extreme Beefy 5-Layer Burrito. Everyone just has a very unique and different relationship to it. And that’s sort of encapsulated in their brand with what they sell. They say: Live más. The food at Taco Bell is only a handful of ingredients that they repackage 3,000 different ways. And you get to choose what your Taco Bell order is.
When you were thinking about setting up something like this, why Taco Bell? Why not KFC?
Their commercials throughout the last few decades involve extreme sports, images of revolution, parties, extreme coolness. And all of this is just in their advertising. And it’s all sort of unhinged. Meanwhile, they’re just slopping together these burritos for us filled with beef and Doritos and ranch dressing and whatever they can think of to put in there. We’re all craving it; we want it. So it’s unhinged. And so I knew that would fit in well with the creative writing community. There’s nothing that unhinged in KFC or McDonald’s.
When is the time someone might get a Taco Bell? Is it a late-night thing? Would you go there for breakfast, or would that be totally insane?
Everyone just is thrilled over here with the breakfast options. I actually haven’t had it, because they don’t have any vegetarian breakfast options. But the main time people go is when you’re stoned and drunk and in a near-blackout state at 2 a.m. And you kind of grow up with it. I have had many people send in pieces where Taco Bell is their baby’s first soft food.
As you said, there seems to be an inherent connection between Taco Bell’s unhinged energy and the energy of an experimental, fun literary journal. What’s the most unhinged thing you think you’ve published so far?
I think everything we’ve just published is really out there. It’s really just an extreme writing prompt, to say every single piece must include a Taco Bell reference. And the acceptance rate into the journal is less than 1 percent. So you must really come with this reference that’s going to transcend the other ones. I’m trying to ask writers: What does living más mean? If I take that phrase away from the advertising, can we use this phrase in a metaphorical and literary sense?
Do you think you could make a journal about basically anything and people would produce good work about it?
Yeah, maybe! I think then we would be getting into the question of What is a literary magazine?
We can go there. What is a literary magazine?
It’s just a place to tell stories. And ours is a place to tell stories about Taco Bell.
What is your personal story with Taco Bell?
Taco Bell was actually the last place I had lunch with my mother before she passed away. And then, the day my son was born, I left the hospital, went over to the mall, and got Taco Bell because I just wanted to feel normal again. So, it just keeps coming up as a thread in my life, these weird milestone moments. I wasn’t planning these things ever, but Taco Bell is just a casual touchstone of life. And that’s why I’m very interested in trying to disentangle myself from it and say, Why is this corporate machine tied so intimately with my own life? I want to explore it, see what’s there, because these things have got their claws in us. We’re all very emotionally connected to Taco Bell. When they take things off the menu, America shudders.
What have they taken off that you want them to keep?
There are regular waves of grief. They took away the Mexican Pizza for almost the first two years of the pandemic. And then they brought it back through a celebrity, and we were all just so happy that it’s finally back in our lives. Now they’ve ripped away the Volcano Tacos. They’re like cruel gods that give and take from us.
So what do you order now? The Mexican Pizza?
Yes, and now that it’s back, I go once a week.
OK, pretty regularly.
I mean, I am the editor of the Taco Bell Quarterly. What else would you expect?
That is fair. But you haven’t gotten sick of it?
No, there’s something about Taco Bell where I don’t think you can get sick of it. You have a craving for it. After a couple of days, there’s a gnawing feeling. Maybe we need a Taco Bell patch, like a nicotine patch.
Final question about the menu: What is a Baja Blast?
That is Mountain Dew. Do you know Mountain Dew?
I’ve heard the name.
Mountain Dew is like an extreme-sports caffeinated soda. Mountain Dew makes your teeth fall out if you drink too much of it.
What flavor is it? Lemon?
It’s green. It’s the flavor of green. So, Baja Blast is their blue flavor, and it’s only available at Taco Bell. It’s neon teal, and it hits your bloodstream almost immediately. It’s one of the most delightful sodas.
What do you want from Taco Bell Quarterly?
The only thing I’m interested in personally is receiving $10 million from Taco Bell for literature. I’m making a literary magazine for fun. And literary magazines are not profitable or something that anyone in the real world has heard of outside of this sort of alternative niche audience of creative writers in a corner of the internet. So I’m sort of interested in reaching the larger world and just screaming about Taco Bell, and saying, Anybody can come be a writer; this insular world isn’t real. I don’t really have interest in growing it, unless Taco Bell wants to give me the $10 million. Until then, I’m going to continue to publish things that border on cease-and-desist.
Are you in touch with Taco Bell?
They watch me closely. In the beginning, they wanted to do a Zoom. And so I have a verbal agreement that they’re not going to sue me, for now. That’s all I came away with. I was trying to get money out of them.
I hope they give it to you.