Cultivating Thought is the one of the summer’s highest profile, and most discomfiting, literary projects. Ten pieces by prominent writers and comics – short fiction, musings, effluvia – are being published on the sides of burrito bags and soda cups, and sold at Chipotle restaurants across North America. The authors were gathered at the behest of “curator” Jonathan Safran Foer, who claims, on Chipotle’s website, he was inspired after grabbing a burrito and finding himself with nothing to read. (Apparently he does not carry a smartphone, or even a book.) The resulting project is being marketed as an equivalent to Poetry on the Subway – a surprising dose of literature and grace in the middle of an otherwise quotidian setting.
Of course, there is a difference between public transit and a “Mexican grill.” The subway is partly funded by taxpayers and is a kind of public, democratic space. Chipotle is a fast-food joint whose stock-and-trade is newborn-sized burritos, chunky tubes of food notable mostly for their pernicious levels of sour cream. But while the motives of this project are perhaps suspect, Foer has gone to lengths to make it worthwhile. The team he recruited is impossibly stacked. Among the contributors are prose titans Toni Morrison and George Saunders, journalist Michael Lewis, and whatever-he-calls-himself-these-days Malcolm Gladwell. Having such notables approach the challenge of writing for a food package is an intriguing proposition. It requires rare concision from famous people who usually have enough clout to write at whatever length they damn well please.
Taken as a compendium, the pieces are kind of a jumble. But there is a thread between them, a vague message about the value of cooperation and fellow-feeling and “good vibes.” (It seems hardly coincidental that such a message lines up with Chipotle’s corporate image.) Saunders, coming off the lovingly received short story collection Tenth of December, more than rises to the limiting format. His “Two Minute Note to the Future” is typically strange, written in a playfully broken prose style. An office worker muses on how weird it is to communicate across time, warning to his future reader, “All, in time, will be in graves,” before backtracking, “Unless you, in future time, have defeated death. If so, please revive me (!).” There is black humour here, but also a yearning for fellowship and love that never feels maudlin or overly earnest.
Morrison, too, has written something lyrical. Her near-poem about loss and fame peaks with a description of seeing “a butterfly, broken by the slam of a single raindrop on its wings, fold and flutter as it hit a pool of water still fighting for the lift that is its nature.” One can practically see the globs of chicken and guacamole dropping out of slackened jaws at that one.
Many of the other contributions feel tossed off. Comedian Sarah Silverman offers a pile of one-liners, which read like Tweets that never made it out of the “Drafts” folder. It’s hard to imagine such an acerbic wit believing these facile lines – “Let’s not wait for the apocalypse or an alien attack to love each other, y’all” – would be good enough in another context.
Judd Apatow’s contribution, meanwhile, is not just lazy, but out of step with the bonhomie of the project as a whole. His essay, “Two Minutes of Rambling Wisdom,” is a confusing statement of purpose: “Don’t be a jerk,” he writes, “And do it despite the fact that you only really like about seven out of 500 people.” The sentiment of “be nice, even though people suck” is cantankerous, while the other pieces feel convivial. But why? Is Apatow rebutting Saunders’s humanism? Or is he suggesting the message of harmony-through-Americanized-Mexican-cuisine is corporate bunk? Apatow’s interview for the Chipotle website suggests it was not so purposeful. There, he confesses “I wrote it quickly and didn’t think about it too much before and after.” Which raises a question – is it better to bring your A-game for a burrito wrapper, or to cash the cheque without cultivating a second thought?
Chris Berube is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Walrus, CBC.ca and The New York Times.