Taco Bell is shit. I know this. It’s not Mexican food, Tex-Mex, or some other hyphenated equivalent. It’s mass-marketed meat product. It’s baby food that’s impossible to decipher into separate body parts or separate animals. Which of Ol’ MacDonald’s charges was liquified and pressed to make this? Who knows. I had an uncle who once shook his head in reference to the chain and said, “I feed my dogs better.” The man voted for Trump, so I jump at any opportunity to disprove his opinion.
When my editor, Paulina, asserted herself as an absolute authority when it came to the branded burrito-peddlers, I saw my chance to try Taco Bell for the first time. I had been stuck in a shame-inducing feedback loop since I’d let known how underdeveloped my palate was when it came to corporate chalupas and co.
“You haven’t been to Taco Bell?”
“I haven’t been to Taco Bell.”
“You’ve never been to Taco Bell?”
“I’ve never been to Taco Bell.”
“You have never had Taco Bell?”
“What did I just say?”
It was like being stuck in a game of telephone, only the connection worked fine and the sentiment just echoed back and forth. One drizzly Friday, I decided I’d had enough scolding and so Paulina and I set out across 125th Street to put an end to things. Only I had been feeling nauseous all morning.
Having been raised on the original seasons of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, I did the only logical thing I could think to do and phoned a friend. Well, texted. This is 2018. I asked if introducing Taco Bell to my already ravaged system would be a bad idea. All I got back was:
This was not the first time I’d gotten a violent head shake when I suggested going to Taco Bell. I’d received plenty of warning over the course of the week, but I got an especially prohibitive one once I made it clear that I was already not exactly retaining food.
Taco Bell is better known for its undesirable side effects than it is for its food. All advice I had ever been given revolved around how much Taco Bell would unapologetically destroy my insides. It ruins you. It turned atheists into supine worshipers of a porcelain god. I was told to resign myself to that fate. Buy baby wipes. Prepare to do some real paperwork.
I was cautioned in a suspiciously monotone voice, “you’re going to poop.” What, like, again today? I am a late-in-life lactose intolerant. Nothing scares me. Although maybe I am not unlike that one foolishly unafraid friend in a slasher film who insists the shadowy figure is just a sweet, old, misunderstood man and in no way a hell demon sent from an sinister and undiscovered dimension to punish us for the sins our ancestors committed. Maybe I should be… at least apprehensive.
I got the impression that if fast food chains were ways to die on the Oregon trail, Taco Bell would be dysentery. So I added Imodium to my mint tin of meds that I kept in my backpack. I was a Boy Scout in a former life. I knew the importance of being prepared, being ready. As Paulina and I crossed avenue after avenue heading east, I felt increasingly at ease. Come what may, I was ready for some real shit.
We arrived at the combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell with a fair amount of rain on our phone screens. I shook as we entered the dual-purpose eatery. It felt almost Frostian to come upon these two roads, to be teased by the smell of sweet marinara, and yet stay on this untrodden path towards tacos.
One of the items we debated, as we stared up at the bright display boards, was the “3 Doritos® Locos Tacos Supreme® Combo.” I’d never seen so many copyrights in one place. The order was three tacos, each wrapped in an enlarged Dorito. This to me begged the question: which came first, the tortilla chip or the taco shell? I remembered vaguely watching a young Tyler Oakley endorse the corporate mash-up like he was stanning as a celebrity. That was years ago, but apparently the combination had stood the test of time better than Channing Tatum, Seal, and Chris Pratt.
Another menu item that had drawn our interest was the chalupa, which according to my hasty googling was supposed to be made with masa dough or in certain preparations Indian hot bread. Whatever our food was nested in wasn’t a flour tortilla, but a “traditional flatbread” that was fried— points for authenticity?– and then topped with fixings. The result was, I supposed, also befitting of the title “Supreme®.”
As Paulina took the controls and masterfully navigated the menu, she repeatedly kept asking “but how hungry are you?” and “how do you feel about X.” The cashier asked us if we wanted tomato, lettuce, onion, and whatever other toppings. I just nodded. I wanted the full experience. Thankfully, I also checked with Paulina about the hot sauces. There were several– Mild, Spicy, Hot, and Diablo– and all were integral parts of Taco Bell. We grabbed fistfuls of each.
The restaurant saw a steady stream of orders, eat-in and eat-out, as we sat waiting on our food. In total: three tacos, two chalupas, a mexican pizza, and some sort of cinnamon dessert. The needs of our dying phones and my slight fear of what was about to happen to my gastrointestinal system resulted in Paulina and I grabbing a circuitous Uber back to her apartment.
I sat criss-cross applesauce on her rug, keeping one eye on the bathroom door, as I took a bite. As I crunched into the president-colored taco, I instantly hated myself. Like deep, lock-yourself-out-of-your-car, forget-your-wallet, drunkenly-agree-to-5AM-hot-yoga hated myself. Because it was delicious. I mean real good. And by good, I mean salty. Obviously powered in whatever the Western equivalent of MSG is. The diced tomato and shreds of lettuce weren’t the typical bright bites of vegetable, but more added color to offset how tangibly inhuman the food is.
You get the idea pretty quickly that this meal is entirely processed, which didn’t feel as guilty-ridden as I expected it would. As Paulina and I moved from tacos to chalupas to tearing off pieces of “pizza” and sampling the icing-filled dessert, I found myself rather comfortable with the amount of chemicals I was likely feeding my body. I suspected that if our leftovers sat in the living room for the rest of the semester, they would remain the same shades of browns and yellows long past graduation. The food had that evergreen quality.
Nothing about Taco Bell pretends to be farm-raised or ethical-anything, which despite my liberal upbringing is sort of inherently charming. The unassuming presentation quelled my anxieties. Both Paulina and I dripped hot sauce on our shirts, but it barely mattered. We could slurp the fallings off from the paper or from the crevices of our palms without judgement. I tore hot sauces open with my teeth. And there was something all-American in the togetherness of that meal. A sort of banquet-like quality to the food, that didn’t stem from its quantity, but rather perhaps its accessibility. Having each item unearthed from its wrapper in front of us made for a great visual, but I got the feeling we could’ve tucked into our meal in the Uber (probably to the chagrin of our driver), eaten in the restaurant, or even while walking back along 125th dripping orange cheese grease as we went.
It was a food for wherever you were, but it was also a food from somewhere you’ve been. Taco Bell made me want to sit in an empty parking lot, perhaps dangling out of a misplaced shopping cart, at night with a poorly concealed forty and close friends– something mind you, I’ve never done. Taco Bell made me feel like a New Age John Hughes character.
Maybe this means my instantaneous love for Taco Bell speaks to an easily diagnosable nostalgia for an un-had youth? A cut scene in which I did this ten years earlier. Perhaps by liking Taco Bell as a grown-up, I’m proving I can still hang despite my mounting food sensitivities and increasingly present bedtime.
Look, I’m not saying Taco Bell will make you feel young again. Despite the percentage of preservatives in the food. If anything, according to most of the folks I’ve spoken to say Taco Bell makes them feel empty. Then bedridden with cold sweats. Then eventually ready for more.
Maybe Taco Bell is a exercise in resilience. Maybe it’s a brief moment of youth. Either way, Taco Bell is still shit, but it’s also maybe the shit.
Zoe Marquedant is a Skittle in a world of M&Ms.