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The editor of Taco Bell Quarterly explains how to make art out of a fast food brand

“They slather another layer of nacho cheese on their product and call it a new product. There’s something about that that’s similar to writing, metaphorically.”

Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell.
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Taco Bell

Move over, Paris Review. The hot new literary mag on the scene is Taco Bell Quarterly, a magazine in which every single piece of writing is inspired by Taco Bell.

Unaffiliated with Taco Bell itself, Taco Bell Quarterly is perhaps the only place where writers can publish poetry about Taco Bell’s discontinued dessert menu, essays on the Crunchwrap Supreme and queer politics, and short stories about a skeleton cop who wants a spicy bean burrito. It is, per its statement of purpose, “a reaction against everything. The gatekeepers. The taste-makers. The hipsters. Health food. Artists Who Wear Cute Scarves. Bitch-ass Wendy’s.”

Last week, I spoke over the phone with Taco Bell Quarterly’s Editor Grande Supreme, MM Carrigan. We talked about why fast food is a powerful venue for art, how to deconstruct the parasocial relationships brands try to develop with us on Twitter, and what makes the Crunchwrap Supreme so delicious. Highlights from our conversation follow, loosely edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

So you’re the editor of Taco Bell Quarterly. Explain to me what that means.

MM Carrigan

We are the literary magazine for Taco Bell literature. I also say celebrating the Taco Bell arts and letters. We’re not a gimmick, we’re not a viral sensation. We are real fiction, real essays, real poetry, real art, inspired by Taco Bell.

Constance Grady

Why Taco Bell?

MM Carrigan

Generation X and millennials are very connected to brands. We grew up in the ’80s. It was the Reagan era. There was the threat of nuclear war, the AIDs crisis, all of our parents divorced. So we watched a lot of television. We were fed by Taco Bell. Nintendo was our best friend. Our Teddy Ruxpin tucked us in at night. We grew up as generations very connected to brands and commercials. I think that’s the starting point for me: Taco Bell came to me. It felt like a friend.

Constance Grady

And what do you think the brand stands for that is interesting to you?

MM Carrigan

You know, a couple years ago, Taco Bell had to deal with the big question of whether there was horse meat in their food. There was a lot of drama about what this mystery meat was. And Taco Bell played into it. They were like, “Thank you for suing us.”

They’ve just always had this cool attitude. They slather another layer of nacho cheese on their product and call it a new product. There’s something about that that’s similar to writing, metaphorically. When you’re trying something out, you can throw a new word in there, look at a new angle, try some Reaper Ranch, and see what you get. I felt like there was a lot to play around with, from the enduring metaphor of mystery meat to nacho cheese.

Constance Grady

Do you see it as being related to the whole snackwave movement at all?

MM Carrigan

I’m sorry, what was the question?

Constance Grady

Do you see Taco Bell Quarterly as being related to the snackwave aesthetic?

MM Carrigan

The snackwave aesthetic.

Constance Grady

Oh man! So there was this article, I think in the Hairpin, in like 2015 [it was 2014] —

MM Carrigan

I’ll have to read it! That’s a new term for me.

Constance Grady

It’s very, like, why everyone’s obsessed with putting slices of pizza on their fashion, etc.

MM Carrigan

Oh, I’ve never connected that, but that’s an interesting thought. For me, I think about how we have these brands on Twitter that we talk to. There was the whole Steak-umm being the voice of public health thing recently. You can be friends with Moon Pie or Corn Nuts on Twitter, and they talk to you. There’s an interconnection with wanting to be friends with brands on Twitter or writing literature about brands, or whatever the snackwave aesthetic is, I think that could all fit into this new subgenre of art.

Constance Grady

And of course the critique you get with brands on Twitter is like, why are they trying to form a connection with us, isn’t that a little parasitic? We should remember that brands are not really our friends but just trying to take our money. How do you see that critique working with the art that you’re making?

MM Carrigan

I see it as a reclaiming. We’re of a generation that was saturated with commercialism. We were sold action figures, bedsheets, fruit snacks. We have a really close interconnection with these things. Our memories and psyches are tied in with them. So to claim them as our own, then: Capitalism built these brands and these towns and we’re populating them.

Constance Grady

Give me an example of what writing about Taco Bell can look like at its best.

MM Carrigan

I’m here for the entire range of it. A lot of people want to write a joking sonnet about the chalupa, or there’s other people who just want to write an extended poop joke. I always get a chuckle out of those. And then there’s other people for whom Taco Bell becomes white noise. It takes place there, but there’s so much more going on in the piece, there’s so many different levels of it, that it’s not really about Taco Bell. It just happens to be Taco Bell adjacent.

Constance Grady

Do you ever get submissions that aren’t about Taco Bell?

MM Carrigan

I do. And I enjoy them, and we may publish them eventually. We’re on our third issue, and I’m just finding the response overwhelming. So many people have their Taco Bell story to tell. So I want to make sure that I tell all of those stories first before getting to all of the non-Taco Bell pieces.

Constance Grady

And how has Taco Bell responded to all this?

MM Carrigan

A lot of people were telling me, “You’re gonna get a cease and desist,” and I kind of worried about it. But like I’ve said several times, I felt like, “Taco Bell’s a friend of mine. They would not betray me in that way.” So I went ahead with it. I just really didn’t think anything would happen. And in fact, they reached out to me and have been really cool.

We’re going to work on some sort of collaboration. I’m trying to get them to agree to the Taco Bell Endowment for the Arts. I’m putting it out there into the world. They haven’t agreed to it, they’re being a bit coy, I don’t think they necessarily want to fund literature, but that’s my grand wish.

Constance Grady

I mean, Chipotle had those short story bags for a while, right? It seems like Taco Bell could get behind that kind of endeavor.

MM Carrigan

I’ve been trying to start a beef with Chipotle on Twitter. Because when they did that a couple years ago, they only published on their bag like 10 writers that were already megafamous. I believe it was Toni Morrison and a few others? So writers that were published in the Paris Review could also be published on a trash bag. But if you’re a nobody writer you couldn’t even make it to a fast food bag.

I kind of want to challenge that a little bit with Taco Bell Quarterly. I kind of want the nobodies, the rejects, the slackers, the freaks. That’s who we want to publish.

Constance Grady

Very punk rock. Does the Quarterly pay its writers?

MM Carrigan

No, I’m super broke. That’s why I’m trying to get the Taco Bell endowment. Taco Bell is sending me free tacos, and I do think that we will be paying in honorarium tacos for volume three.

Constance Grady

How are you going to do that with social distancing? Is it like a gift card?

MM Carrigan

Yeah, they’re sending me gift cards and I’ll just mail them.

Constance Grady

What’s your favorite thing on the Taco Bell menu?

MM Carrigan

I’ve become a Crunchwrap Supreme convert. I never had it before, but I got so many poetry pieces about it that I was like, “Damn, I gotta try this thing.” And now it’s the only thing I order. I even got my wife on board with it. I’m like, “You gotta try this Crunchwrap.” It’s like a religious movement.

Constance Grady

Earliest Taco Bell memory?

MM Carrigan

It was the place where we went on Friday nights to celebrate. My mom would be like, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight. Let’s go to Taco Bell.” It’s very much tied in with my nostalgia and psyche. To not my surprise, it’s tied in with everyone else’s as well, because I’m getting such an overwhelming response. So many writers. Thousands.

Constance Grady

And is there anything on the menu where you’re like, “No, this is bad”?

MM Carrigan

I’m a vegetarian, so I do stay away from the mystery meat. But nothing on the Taco Bell menu is bad. That’s my official answer.