Books or Brown Bags?

Chipotle has a tendency to make headlines for more than just its burritos, which, full disclosure, along with being born, hitting my first home run and achieving puberty, are the best thing that ever happened to me.

Eat guilt free, they say. The ingredients are fresh, never frozen. The beef is grass-fed, the chicken is free-range and our hipster Muzak is fresher than the guac, so you know we’re on board with your noble progressive agenda.
In case there was any doubt, the restaurant recently requested that patrons leave their firearms at home when they came to dine. (Hand guns and Arcade Fire make for strange bedfellows.)

But for their latest trick, Chipotle has begun including literature on their bags, and not the kind of literature you’d expect, no sir, not a single sentence about global warming, Americans for Responsible Solutions, polar bears, pandas or even immigration reform. We’re talking real literature. We’re talking Jonathan Safron Foer, George Saunders, Sheri Fink and Toni Morrison. Also Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman presumably because Chipotle also needs jokes on cups so you can wash down wisdom and art with the sweet taste of low-brow humor.

Saunders’s contribution is especially prescient, imagining the future from the point of view of the classic Saunders protagonist who speaks in brief fragments and the ever-useful parenthetical exclamation point(!)

“Maybe you, in your future clothing, can drive your jet car to my grave, hover over grave, think fondly of time you read these words, leave weird cloned flowers, go scooting back to own life.”

What better way to describe the experience of swinging by a fast food restaurant, and grabbing a bite, then forgetting the experience forever? Ah! but here we see the value of the bag oeuvre.

For a long time, I made a point of carrying a magazine with me at all times so I would be stimulated while eating. What worse, I thought, then being forced to focus on the food on a paper plate or wrapper to avoid staring at the other customers. (This was before smart phones, when withdrawing into your own world took a little more effort.) Reading over food created a unique experience, one that marked a meal with learning or looking at the world in a new way.

Winter 2006: Chinese restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA; read short story about infidelity in an ESL class. June 2008. Harrisburg, PA; read article about String Theory while eating oatmeal with blueberries. I was on a weight-gain diet then. I didn’t have cable or a full length sofa and lived across the street from a police station. August 2011. Read two articles at a buffet in Staunton, VA. One about Francois Hollande and another about the importance of linguistics in “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess himself. I was hungry that day.

Perhaps it is the sharing of attention that makes both the meal and the read more salient. Some things require less than full attention. There are times when too much quiet actually makes it hard to read–the mind begins to wander while the eyes press on and eventually you’ve read an entire novel without remembering any of the characters’ names.

A lot of people complain about literature in the 21st century. Sometimes the people who say they haven’t got the time to read also say they don’t like short fiction because they want to get their money’s worth. As Foer said about the bag literature project, “The question isn’t really, ‘Is this going to change the world?’ The question is, ‘Is this better than having a blank bag?'” In other words, reading is better than not reading, so as long as your food is making you sit still for a few minutes, why not take your brain for a spin?

Personally, I’m always looking for way to get the most out of my burrito.

1 Comment

  1. uncle S.:

    cereal is the food of eat-reading, all b/c the text-y package stands up by itself. separately, aren’t high blown excerpts— from novels!— meant to flatter the customers?

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