Eating at Chipotle is already a story, full of character choices, unforeseeable twists, and tragic consequences as you embark on your burrito journey, pestered by the maddening, Kafkaesque repetition of the question, “Do you know that guacamole is extra?” But now your burrito comes with an additional scoop of literary ambition at no additional charge, as author Jonathan Safran Foer has collaborated with the quick-serve Mexican chain to print original short stories and essays by authors like George Saunders, Toni Morrison, and Malcolm Gladwell—as well as comedy types such as Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, and Bill Hader—right on its bags and cups. It’s the most significant such undertaking since Gutenberg’s early experiments with the printing press, which produced only barely legible quesadillas.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Foer explains how he came up with the idea after finding himself at a Chipotle in a pre-smartphone age, without so much as a magazine to read while he sat there and contemplated all the beautiful sadness that is layered like so many toppings in the burrito of the world. “I really just wanted to die with frustration,” Foer said, in one of the most Jonathan Safron Foer-y statements ever made. And so, to help others avoid a similar fate, Foer embarked on his plucky expedition, armed only with an old map, a mysterious key, and the email address for the CEO of Chipotle:
“I said, ‘I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text,’” Foer recalled. “And unlike McDonald’s, it’s not like they’re selling their surfaces to the highest bidder. They had nothing on their bags. So I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just put some interesting stuff on it? Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service.’”
And since “putting some stuff on it” is kind of Chipotle’s thing, the chain was all over Foer’s plan, agreeing to plaster works like his own “Two-Minute Personality Test” (sample question, appropriate for eating fast food: “Do you love what you love, or just the feeling?”), Morrison’s “Two-Minute Seduction,” and Michael Lewis’ “The Two-Minute Minute”—all to be read in the two minutes it takes to eat a Chipotle burrito. Anything longer than that, and you’re only giving in to intellectual and esophageal laziness.
As for whether Foer felt any conflict about having his name tied to Chipotle’s spicy meat-piles—especially after he’d written the vegetarian screed Eating Animals, and lashed out against the practices of America’s mass food producers—the answer is no, and certainly not just because of money. Foer said that while doing research for Eating Animals, he found that “Chipotle was pointed to quite often, as a model of what scaling good practices might look like.” And besides, any such reservations can easily be set aside for Foer’s real reason for doing it: saving the untold thousands of Americans who are starving for literature, in addition to starving for burritos.
“What interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing. A lot of those people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores,” Foer said of those residents of U.S. towns where the printed word has either fallen out of fashion or been outlawed altogether, its public libraries all replaced by Chipotles. Now, finally, those people no longer have to choose between nourishing themselves with the written word or burritos. They can have both.