Taco Bell is the Las Vegas of American food.
Vegas knows why you’re there. They make it clear they know why you’re there pretty much as soon as you step into the airport. You’re there for gambling and booze and boobs. Lots of gambling and booze and boobs. You’re there for an excess of excess, for embellishments ladled on top of embellishments that you take in while strolling around with an open container of alcoholic Kool-Aid. You’re not there for tasteful restraint or quiet contemplation, and heaven help you if you’d like some. You’re there for bawdy and gaudy, served up with utter shamelessness.
Vegas knows why you’re there.
And so does Taco Bell.
All of this sprang to mind reading an article in Slate about the new “fresh” campaigns various fast food retailers have been trotting out, Taco Bell’s most of all. I particularly enjoyed one paragraph:
I think what we’re seeing is that consumers in general are moving away from what we call ‘food as fuel,’ ” says Ellie Doty, a senior marketing manager with Taco Bell. Now, she says, “food is experience.”
Frankly, I’m surprised anyone at Taco Bell would go on the record as thinking their consumers were there for “food as fuel.” I would have guessed the average Taco Bell consumer would have had a more “food has mass and takes up space” mentality. “Fuel” implies a greater awareness of/interest in calories and the related implications of sucking down a Mexican Pizza than I would impute to the average Taco Bell patron.
And that was the glory of Taco Bell. Rather than pretending it served anything other than a massive pile of highly processed chemicals and byproducts, it veritably gloried in it. “Look,” it seemed to say, “you’re here to shovel awful, awful ‘food’ into your gullet and we’re here to serve it to you. This ain’t Chez Panisse and you don’t want it to be. You want fat and salt in alternating layers of crunchy, gooey and crumbly. Come ‘n get it.”
How else to explain its jaw-droppingly brazen tribute to drunken, late-night gorging “Fourthmeal“? It saw America’s desire to indulge in yet more gluttony and said “we’re here to help.” How else to make sense of its Dorito-shelled hybrid “Loco” taco, which met the demands of people who wanted all their junk food in one bite, without the wear and tear on the joints that comes from putting one item down and picking up another? (I love the article’s description of the tacos as “a $1.29 fistful of garbage dusted in neon-orange sodium that tasted vaguely like cheese and synergy.”)
This is a chain that banishes shame. I think it’s only been outdone in mass-produced deadly sin by the KFC “Double-down” sandwich, a chicken sandwich in which the bun has been replaced by yet more chicken, and which St. John the Divine would surely have put into the book of Revelation as a sign of God’s imminent wrath if such an appalling notion could have occurred to him.
So it’s almost tragic to me to see them trotting out a celebrity chef to hawk their new supposedly-fresh menu of more thoughtful, tasteful meals. I think this is a mistake.
First of all, it’s ludicrous. If you go into a fast food joint and expect a flavor experience anywhere close to what a real chef would serve in a real restaurant, then your tray of disappointment is a just reward. I don’t know who Lorena Garcia is, but I guarantee that if anyone confused what she serves in her actual establishment with what’s being marketed using her image at Taco Bell, she would weep bitter, cilantro-infused tears. Let’s not kid ourselves.
But come on! Just like I wouldn’t book a trip to Vegas for a week of fasting and prayer, I wouldn’t want to go to Taco Bell for a gourmet dining experience. That’s not what it’s there for. It’s there to peddle coronaries on the installment plan with nary a judgment or apology. You want fresh ingredients and a subtle interplay of flavors and textures? Hit the road, pal. This is Taco Bell.
So that’s this week’s Question, layered like a 7-layer Burrito — what almost (almost) achieves a kind of greatness in its unflinching acceptance of its own crappiness? What other monuments to vice and over-indulgence can you think of, so overt and flagrant that they’re nearly wonderful, if not quite? What would paradoxically be made worse by trying to make it better?