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Food for thought: Where would we be without Taco Bell?

It may not be authentic and it may not be gourmet, but Taco Bell helped familiarize Americans with Mexicans and their culture.

January 24, 2010|By Gustavo Arellano

For many foodies and their lefty amigos, Taco Bell belongs in the pantheon of all-time anti-Mexican conspiracies -- a notch below Lou Dobbs but more onerous than the swine flu.

These custodians of cuisine and culture rail against the fast-food behemoth, bemoan how it mongrelizes one of the world's great food traditions with its chalupas and enchiritos, its Volcano Menu and cheese roll-ups. The chain's ubiquity makes it just another foot soldier in corporate America's drive toward nationwide blandness, they'll argue. And how insulting was that darn Chihuahua campaign from a couple of years ago? "Yo quiero Taco Bell?" Muy racist!

Full disclosure: I'm one of those whiners. Ever tried one of their burritos? Blech. But with the recent death of Taco Bell's founder, Glen Bell, it's time to praise the multibillion-dollar powerhouse. It deserves a spot in Mexican American lore, in the gallery honoring those brave pioneers who helped us join the melting pot -- below Cesar Chavez but higher than George Lopez.

When Bell sold his first crunchy taco in 1951, Americans outside the Southwest largely were unfamiliar with Mexican society beyond Hollywood's banditos and the spicy señoritas of song. It was the years before the Great Brown Migration, and without a widespread population to introduce Mexican dishes to the general public, the nationwide reputation of Mexican food languished in the realm of slurs -- "pepper belly," "taco bender" and the ever-dangerous "Montezuma's revenge."

But Bell -- a white man operating a burger stand in San Bernardino's Mount Vernon barrio -- saw an opportunity. "I figured if Mexican food [sold in a fast-food environment] was successful, potential competitors would write it off to my location and assume the idea wouldn't sell anywhere else," Bell said in his 1999 biography, "Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story." He began streamlining the taco-making process, modified Mexican foodstuffs for mainstream acceptance and opened his first Taco Bell in Downey in the early 1960s, franchising nationwide soon after. "I didn't invent the taco," he remarked, "but I believe I improved it."

That claim is still debatable, but what's certain is that Bell's mass-produced version of Mexican food -- owing more to the palate of suburban Southern California than the Empire of the Sun -- caught on across the United States. It was a more innocent time, one in which communities welcomed encroaching Mexican culture not with protests and vile slurs but with an order for three hard-shell tacos, easy on the sour cream.

Competitors quickly popped up and spread "Mexican" food to all corners of the republic long before actual Mexicans arrived. Some kept versions of Taco Bell's original mascot, the archetypal peon sleeping under a cactus; others modified the food further to match local tastes (oh, how I'd love to see gourmand purists react to Taco John's, a chain with hundreds of outposts in the upper Midwest whose signature breakfast burrito contains crunchy Tater Tots). It's now a multibillion-dollar industry, with Taco Bell firmly on top.

The company's introduction of a culinary scaffold on which Americans learned to crave Mexican food proved momentous to American tastes. Without Taco Bell, salsa wouldn't have become as big a seller as ketchup and mustard. No Taco Bell, then no Doritos empire or Super Bowl Sunday rush for guacamole. Without Taco Bell, Mexican food wouldn't have entered our gustatory vernacular alongside pizza, the hot dog, pita wraps and other vestiges of ethnic America.

Far from warping traditional recipes, the success of Taco Bell-style Mexican eats sparked a backlash led in the 1970s by author and culinary expert Diana Kennedy, and carried to the present day by Rick Bayless and other celebrity chefs to popularize "authentic" Mexican dishes so amateur cooks could ditch the taco kit and experience the real deal. And the continual influx of Mexican immigrants into this country ensures that "real" Mexican fare won't soon disappear.

More important, Taco Bell and its spawn became a gateway for Americans to accept Mexicans. It hasn't been an easy ride, of course, but one smoothed by an endless stream of refried beans and nacho cheese. If you can sit down and enjoy the cuisine of newcomers, then surely you can start thinking of them as fellow citizens, right? And with Taco Bell's recent push into international markets, it's making as bold a statement as any in the immigration wars, one that's downright revolutionary: Mexican food can represent U.S. culture with nary a second thought.

I ate at Taco Bell the other night for the first time in years in honor of Glen Bell, just to see if my bad memories of the chain were still justified. They were. My burrito contained bland pinto beans, cheese that tasted like chalk, all within a clammy flour tortilla. But in front of me in the drive-through line were whites, Asians, even Mexicans, all trying to grab a slice -- scratch that, a taco -- of America.

But here's hoping they doused their grub with Tapatio instead of requesting extra packets of Border Sauce Fire -- it's still Taco Bell, after all.

Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion, author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! and the food editor for OC Weekly.

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