How “Taco Bell Quarterly” uses the literary mag format to reclaim our obsessions about fast food
Perhaps more than any other fast-food chain, Taco Bell has harnessed the power of obsession. It feels immune to the criticisms typically lobbed at fast food — dismal pay for workers, the homogenization of society, cultural appropriation, bad quality — because, well, the Mexican pizza! Baja Blast! The tantalizing lowbrowness of it all! While other chains attempt to lure with health, trendy ingredients, or just the general idea of coolness, Taco Bell seems to eschew all things that don’t feel like Taco Bell. Taco Bell is not trying to be good, which is what makes it honest, which is in turn what makes it good in the eyes of its legion of adherents.
M. M. Carrigan is also obsessed with Taco Bell. But they have turned that obsession toward a space that, so far, the chain has not penetrated — the literary world, another place where aesthetics and coolness tends to overshadow honesty. Since 2019, they have been running Taco Bell Quarterly, a lit mag that seeks “to demystify what it means to be literary, artistic, important, and elite.” Many of the submissions of poetry, comics, and essays evoke Taco Bell, but also span subject and form. “Is this real? A joke? A literary psy-op?,” asks the mag. “We don’t fully know. We just decided to write about Taco Bell.”
The lit mag has gained a following over the past three years, so much so that Taco Bell itself has become aware of its presence. We spoke to Carrigan about the sticky space between making mass food culture one’s own, and playing into corporate hands. And how “Live Más” can be more than just a way to sell burritos.
Eater: What is your relationship to Taco Bell in general?
M. M. Carrigan: It’s food that I’ve just always liked. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, and Taco Bell was the rare fast-food place. We had McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s, but if you wanted Taco Bell, you had to go to another town, and it just had this allure to me [because of] that. So we went to other towns when we were celebrating stuff. There’s this whole conversation on Twitter happening right now about “Who goes to Applebee’s and who goes to Olive Garden? How do these restaurants possibly still exist?” It’s very snobby and elitist, and it’s the same thing with Taco Bell. So I think it was just kind of magical to me. It was the good place to go at that time. Of course, I’ve grown since then, but I still love Taco Bell.
On the other side, what has been your relationship to lit mags?
Literary magazines, they’ve always had that allure to me too. I’ve always wanted to be in the most prestigious ones, and I don’t have an MFA. Literary magazines were something I had never heard of before I got my writing degree. I didn’t realize 20 years ago that everything was really prescribed — of course the thing is you just make art, just put yourself out there, but to be a literary writer, there’s a path you have to go through and gates and certain elite MFAs. I have an MA in writing and it’s not a very prestigious degree, even though I feel proud of my degree now. It’s 10 flexible classes you could take to squeeze in while you worked your two full-time jobs. I think MFAs often prepare writers for wider publication with book contracts and agents. My program prepared me to submit to literary magazines.
So at the conclusion of the program, I had my beautiful writing and I submitted it to literary magazines, and of course I got rejected because it was terrible. And I kind of quit for a while and I got married, we had kids, and in 2019 I was like, I want to be a writer again. And what do you do when you want to be a writer? Of course, you go on lit Twitter. And I decided to make a joke. I’m going to make the Taco Bell Quarterly, because I felt like a Taco Bell and that’s how it started. The humor comes out of my insecurity, and that is my relationship to literary magazines. An insecurity that I am not good enough. This is why I named it very deprecatingly, the Taco Bell Quarterly.
I think one of the things that has made it such a touchpoint is that, as you say, there are so many unspoken rules with lit mags and so much gatekeeping. Whereas Taco Bell, you have maybe the most accessible place. Having a literary mag called Taco Bell Quarterly, how do you think that affects how writers are approaching their work and deciding what to write?
I think what a lot of people really seem to get is that they feel brave enough to submit to the Taco Bell Quarterly because it’s not snobby, it’s not prestigious. You can just come hang out in the Taco Bell parking lot and learn the magic tricks from the writers. We’re just sitting here talking and having fun and making art. We’re in our submission reading window right now and I’m seeing the kind of fun stuff that’s coming in, and everyone’s very aware of their audience. They know that they’re writing to these other almost 30,000 people out there that are all paying attention to what’s going to get published, what’s going to make it. That’s something that literary writing lacks because it’s become so insular; there’s only a few thousand people paying attention.
Food is a personal thing. When I think about my relationship to food, I have an anxiety disorder, so I like to just eat. I like fast food because I know what to expect. I know that it’s going to be made the same way every time. I can get it vegetarian. I was talking about this with some folks recently, about traveling and trying new restaurants. I can’t really be a part of that scene because traveling makes me sick to my stomach, I could barely eat. So something like Taco Bell saves my life. It’s very personal because for other people, it makes them shit themselves — the opposite of saving their lives.
In your interview in The Takeout, you said that you want TBQ to be this place where it’s provoking and existing among the white noise of capitalism. So it’s very rebellious against capitalist society, but on the other hand, you’ve named yourself after this massive international corporation. How does that square in your head, fighting capitalism with a symbol of capitalism?
I was thinking about it as almost reclaiming something. What does it mean to live más? The advertising gods have been able to define this brand and teach it to us and tell us what it is for so long. It ultimately means buying burritos. So I’m asking everyone, could we take that back and redefine it? I could be totally wrong, and at the end, they’re laughing as I’m still selling bean burritos for them. But wouldn’t that be art too?
I’m also asking a question of what is art and how can it exist within the white noise of capitalism and how can it survive? Everything’s just getting strangled and killed. Someone tweeted the other day, “live más, die less,” just a rallying cry. And I think that the literary writers are trying to define it. I’m also sort of into this idea that this is a countercultural revolutionary moment, and we are the literary writers at the end of the world. Of course these creative people will rise up and scream live más, die less. Or not!
I was surprised too, you were talking about how Taco Bell has reached out to you. And even though they have not agreed to pay you what you’re demanding for an official collaboration, it’s clear that they recognize that you are driving brand recognition for them, but also that you are doing your own thing. Can you talk more about being in that space?
We were talking about the metaverse thing in Taco Bell, they did a promotion where you can have your wedding in the metaverse inside a Taco Bell. They unfollowed everyone except for Decentraland. And when that happened, my thought was, oh my god, just waste your money on a literary magazine instead. Nobody cares about this NFT thing. But now they follow me back, it’s like Mountain Dew, Doritos, NFL players, celebrities, pop stars, and the Taco Bell Quarterly, a literary magazine begging for its life. I think that sounds funny as fuck; that’s how I feel. I’m just making art and I’m encouraging other people to come make art with me. Submit to the Taco Bell Quarterly, shoot for Taco Bell in your art.
Your demand is 7 million from them now?
I’m not really negotiating across the table with anyone here, but I’m thinking of how NFL players do negotiate their contracts on social media. They’ll scrub their social media. They’ll click hard on other players’ stuff. So maybe I will scrub the entire Taco Bell branding one day and become the Testicle Balls Quarterly. You can do anything you want. You can do anything you want when you’re a literary writer.
I mean, if Taco Bell gave you $7 million, would you take it and what would you do with it?
Yes, I would take it! You always take the money. And the next thing I would do is I would make a literary magazine just like I’ve always said I would. I would be able to hire the co-editor and pay them, and I would be able to pay more for creative writers for their work and their poetry, and to make more people feel like real writers. We’re a queer magazine, me and [deputy editor Brooke Kolcow] are both trans. And so I just encourage people to try on the Taco Bell Quarterly and see what it feels like to be a literary writer.
And without $7 million, I’ll be performing on the social media channel for a few more years until I eventually give up and do something else with my time.
Amazing. Well, I guess finally, what’s your Taco Bell order?
It is the Mexican pizza, and of course my faith is restored; it’s back. Just like we always knew it would be.