My parents thought inside the bun. It wasn’t as if my brother and I were strangers to fast food though. Nearly every weekend our father would take us to McDonalds or Burger King. But, we never went to Taco Bell.
The commercials were staples of my 1990s TV watching experience. The jingle to the “$.59, $.79, $.99” campaign is engraved in stone in my brain, while I still have to stop and think about the year I was married. But, we never went to Taco Bell.
There’s a movie trope where the naive kid takes a sip of alcohol for the first time, and spits it out, exclaiming to everyone that it’s rotten. I had this embarrassing experience as an early teenager, but with Guacamole. “It’s gone bad! The guacamole has spoiled!” I exclaimed in the movie version of this otherwise true-life story, slapping the guacamole from my friends hands. And as for sour cream, I’m not sure I knew what it was until my later teenage years. It was clear to everyone that I had never been to Taco Bell.
That all changed when I got my license and my first car, and the bits of freedom that came with it. I quickly learned that sour cream is in fact delicious, just poorly named. We drove to nearby towns and their Taco Bells served as landmarks for all driving direction instructions. They may not be there any longer, but 20 years later the old Taco Bells in Milford and Franklin, MA would be the best location reference one could give me.
By my senior year of high school I was a Taco Bell expert. The Double Decker taco had just come out, but I remained a traditionalist; Taco Supremes were my south-of-the-border poison of choice. I could eat them while driving in my 1984 Cutlass Supreme without causing a giant mess (or not caring about the mess, in more likelihood). As a 17 year old, it’s certain I joked about how my car was just a regular Cutlass car, but with the addition of tomatoes and sour cream.
My senior year of high school allowed me the additional freedom to go off-campus during lunch. I think it’s fairly obvious at this point that I drove to Taco Bell for lunch a lot. The Internet was also being introduced to our home at around this time. I have no idea why, but the first site I visited to show what the Internet was to my parents was http://www.tacobell.com. I think I thought it was a good reference site to get contact details in order to call places like Taco Bell, not yet comprehending that the internet would replace the need to call most establishments in general.
Fast-forward 20 years and I’ve only been to Taco Bell around a dozen times since. I grew out of it in college, and a Taco Bell habit doesn’t fit well into the schedule of a healthy adult.
On May 20, 2018 I took my two daughters Carmela (7) and Valentina (3) to Taco Bell for the first time. They were no strangers to tacos in general as we have taco night in the house for dinner nearly once per week. It usually consists of some ground meat, boxed shells, shredded cheese, yogurt, and sliced olives. Sometimes I think they’d preferred if we skipped all ingredients except for the olives and cheese.
On the way to Taco Bell I explained to the kids the difference between a Taco and a Taco Supreme. They responded that they wanted theirs with olives. It was difficult to explain to them that Taco Bell wasn’t actually a real restaurant. You can’t just ask the staff to put additional stuff on your menu item. You get what you get. It was agreed that they’d each get one Taco, and one Taco Supreme.
I hadn’t seen a Taco Bell menu in many years, but it was clear they have since added more items. I quickly scanned the menu to make sure “Taco” and “Taco Supreme” was still the accurate naming convention. “What if the term ‘taco supreme’ was retired in 1998?” I though to myself. They never talk about Taco Supremes on their commercials any more. Would they suspect I was a spy, or a time-traveler, if I confidently tried to order a menu item that hadn’t been there in 20 years? It was. Valentina exclaimed “They have cheese!” as she saw pictures of cheese on the menu. Despite my new found confidence after finding a familiar item on the menu, it was clear to everyone in this Taco Bell that this was our first family experience.
After I ordered we sat on some stools and waited. We waited for about 30 seconds and they called our order. Carmela exclaimed “They cooked that quick“, and everyone laughed. They laughed in part because she was cute, but also because “cooked” isn’t a word often used in a Taco Bell.
My kids, like all kids, often decide what foods they like, and what foods they don’t like, before trying them. They cry “gross” on the first bite, before their brain actually decides whether they like it or not. I knew this would be the case with this new taco experience. I wasn’t going to leave until they admitted they liked their tacos, and it went better than I expected. They both almost finished their two tacos.
So what role does Taco Bell play in today’s youth? Something to do with obesity, probably.