Taco Bell, the Mexican fast-food giant everyone loves to hate, celebrates its 50th anniversary this week and...yeah. Heaven knows it's an easy whipping boy for everything wrong with Mexican food in this country: the bastardized meals, the incessant appropriation (this week: I finally reveal the name of the restaurant whose taco recipe Glen Bell took for himself and subsequently became a millionaire while leaving the family behind), the bad food, the many bizarre crimes committed at its premises. They'll play a big role in my book on Mexican food in the United States (out April 10), and not always a positive one
But that's the easy part. Fact is, the Bell also immeasurably helped out the progress of Mexican food in this country. Yes, Virginia: there are nice things to say about Taco Bell--great things, actually, for without it, we'd be at a much-worse spot for Mexican food. So next time you want to slam the Doritos Loco taco...don't. At least for this week, out of respect for this taco titan.
1. Taco Bell Brought Mexican Restaurants to Places That Never Had One, Thereby Whetting Appetites for the Better Mexican to Come
Instead of me rehashing a point I've made before, check out my commentary above on the very subject for Marketplace in 2010, shortly after the death of Glen Bell.
2. Taco Bell Convinced Non-Mexicans that They, Too, Could Get Rich off Mexican Food
Bell was a fast-food Johnny Appleseed, giving a start to the founders of Del Taco and Wienerschnitzel, and helping out Dick Naugles of Naugles fame--and these were just his personal friends. The early success of Bell with El Taco launched a taco revolution--between Taco Bell, Del Taco, Naugles, and their imitators--TacoTime, Taco Tico, Taco John's, Taco Bueno, and other chains started by gabacho men in the 1960s, the country was awash in fast-food empires. Such success, in turn, convinced entrepreneurs to join the Mexican game. And while Americans getting rich on Mexican food is nothing news (read my book for more details), Bell did this at a time when franchising was exploding and further drove the point for Americans that they didn't need Mexicans around to enjoy or cook Mexican food.
3. Taco Bell Helped to Popularize the Burrito
The Bell gets all the attention for its proselytizing efforts regarding the taco, but usually forgotten was their pioneering role with burritos, which have existed on Taco Bell's menu since its 1962 beginning. Americans had at least the idea of a taco in the early 1960s, when the Bell and its imitators spread across the country, but burritos were as alien as the idea of a Mexican middle-class. This country wouldn't become burrito-crazy until the advent of Chipotle last decade, but like Mexican food and tacos, Taco Bell paved the road to the burrito's success.
4. Taco Bell Has Long Made Bilingualism Cool
Glen Bell could've easily unleashed his restaurants across the United States and left it at that, or given his offerings mock Spanish names like he did with his first all-Mexican restaurant, Taco-Tia (it was supposed to be "Tapatia," but the name got nixed by his business partner, who found the name too Mexican--true story!). Instead, Bell took out advertisements featuring pronunciation guides for his menu in the newspapers of markets Taco Bell was penetrating for the first time. Sure, the company sometimes lost its way with the name of certain products, but that ease with bilingualism still exists today--witness Taco Bell's new advertising slogan, "Live Más," complete with an accent on the a in "más" just like it's supposed to. In the annals of Spanish in the United States, Taco Bell is like John the Baptist, heralding the coming of the New Mexican Way.
5. Taco Bell is Proof that Mexican Food Isn't Static but Rather Evolutionary
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If it were up to the Rick Baylesses and Diana Kennedy of the world, Mexican food would still be the same dishes served to Nezahualcoyotl (which would've meant no beef, lamb, pork, rice, or tequila--but don't tell that to them!). In fact, the ridiculous authenticity game largely arose as a counterpoint to Taco Bell's increasingly wacky creations, wackiest of which is now their foray into taco shells made with Doritos flavors (of which I'll have a review this week).
I don't like Taco Bell's offerings--never have. But every chalupa, every enchirito, every Doritos Loco taco is a spit in the eye of atavistic pendejos. If we paid attention to what Bayless, et al. preach as gospel, we would've never had the Korean taco, the pastrami burrito, the Sonoran dog and all other sorts of meal mestizaje. Taco Bell has shown innovative restaurateurs that consumers are always looking for something new--and it's that truism that has made Mexican food the juggernaut it is today.