The Essay I Submitted to Taco Bell Quarterly
yes, that's a real literary magazine
This newsletter is about eating and escapism. There are many reasons for that, but the truth of the matter is that descending into sensory and imaginative experiences was how I got through my childhood. If you’re going to self-medicate, food and stories are pretty good options.
I read at least a novel a week in high school, taking cooking classes on the weekends. I was on the Teen Advisory Board of my local bookstore so that I could get free books. On my second-ever trip to NYC, I convinced Mom to take me to restaurants run by some of my favorite Food Network stars—Bobby Flay and Mario Batali (yikes.)
But my food obsessions weren’t (and aren’t) always fancy. This brings us to Taco Bell Quarterly, a real literary magazine that exists. Taco Bell was one of my first culinary obsessions, and while this essay wasn’t what they were going for at the time, their editors still loved it. Unfortunately, it’s been sitting on the shelf ever since.
But I figured this was as good a time as any to resurrect it. And now, without further ado, I present A Crunchwrap Against Tomorrow.
A Crunchwrap Against Tomorrow
Anyone who grew up in the Los Angeles area and later moved somewhere outside of California will at some point be asked the same question: “Don’t you miss the Mexican food?”
And like, yes. Of course. Don’t get me wrong; I miss every last bit of it.
With every ounce of my Puritan and Ashkenazi soul, I miss steaming bowls of lava-red pozole. I miss the nontraditional chilaquiles with mole and chorizo and a fried egg at La Cabañita in Glendale. I miss the overstuffed breakfast burritos at Lucky Boy in Pasadena that were offered as prizes for good grades in my AP Psych class. I miss the al Pastor tortas and horchata we used to pick up at the once beautiful, tiny storefront of Tortas Mexico in La Crescenta.
I mourn the loss of the salsa at the former IHOP that is Doña Maria - they changed the recipe when I was in college, and my inner child will never recover. Living in New York City—where you have to pay for chips and salsa—I even miss the tableside guacamole at Los Gringos Locos, despite its distinction as the self-aware restaurant’s only redeeming quality.
And those are just the places within ten minutes of my house in the suburbs. I could pen a pipedream about Mexican food in Los Angeles, and I’ve only ever scratched the surface of it.
But that all came later. My younger self was deeply obsessed with Taco Bell.
I still remember the first time we went to Taco Bell. I was probably 5 years old, arm in a cast from the first of two hubristic encounters with towering jungle gyms. It was dark out, probably nearing my 8 pm bedtime, when we pulled up to the drive-thru. I can picture the hazy light-pollution glow of the menu that night. I know I ordered a Mexican pizza—it was my go-to order for years afterward. That crunchy-soggy-salty mess of a food was pure joy. The last time I had one—during an interminable bus ride to Boston for Thanksgiving—the one bright spot in the day was that shock of edible nostalgia.
Trips to Taco Bell became a fixture of my after-school activities. Depending on the route, it was on the way home, so we often found ourselves in the drive-thru. My sister always ordered a choco taco and a steak gordita. But I was less predictable, delighting in how often the menu changed, finding joy in every new wonder they could throw at me, and washing it all down with a cold Sprite.
As I got older, Taco Bell became an important convenience food. Once, maybe in 6th grade, Dad forgot we needed to leave for a fancy work retreat my mom had to schmooze at all weekend. Mom had left with my sister already; for some reason, we were taking separate cars.
And, well, as anyone who started taking ADHD meds at a young age will tell you, the moment they wear off, you need to eat. Immediately.
We stopped at Taco Bell, where they had just rolled out a new gordita with Day-Glo yellow corn and black beans, and I snacked away in the front seat, fortified for my first foray into playing navigator with a printout from MapQuest. It went about as well as you would expect—a 6th grader on the autism spectrum with severe ADHD who’s pissed at you for ripping her away from a Land Before Time movie is precisely the person you want giving you directions on a dark road in an unfamiliar area. But we got there eventually, and we might not have without the help of Taco Bell.
This incident coincided with the early days of my burgeoning teenage hot sauce obsession. In high school, trips to the inside of our purple and orange Taco Bell—you never end up with as many extra sauce packets as you want in the drive-thru—were often punctuated with my oddly macho attempts to drink several consecutive hot sauce packets straight.
Of course, I only wanted the fire sauce.
At some point, my parents even bought us shares in the stock of our choice for a Christmas or Hanukkah present. Without hesitation, I declared my stock would be in Taco Bell (or, as I later found out, its parent company YUM! Brands.) What child doesn’t love investing early, right?
I took a break from Taco Bell in college. My food snobbery was crystallizing, I rarely left campus due to my lack of a driver’s license, and the rest of the sci-fi club only went to Taco Bell for late-night escapades in drunken gut-destruction. The good thing about hanging out with autistic people is it’s never that hard to find a designated driver, but somehow, eating Taco Bell as drunk food felt wrong to me. Like it would tarnish my childhood.
Years later, once I’d moved to New York City, Taco Bell was even involved in the time a friend and I accidentally got a manager fired from Momofuku Milk Bar. We offered the guy—who Evan knew through a hipsterfied dude we’d gone to college with—a mountain of cold, leftover (but free) tacos from a dubious Cinco de Mayo party in exchange for a cake. Later, Christina Tosi Corporate found out but eating free cake in Central Park while you watch someone you’ve just met devour stale Taco Bell that has traveled via subway from just above 14th St. is just a whole mood.
Taco Bell is weird. Taco Bell is so weird that professional weird person Danny Bowien used to serve dressed-up crunchwraps at his short-lived Manhattan restaurant Mission Cantina. It’s so weird that in 2020 America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast Proof declared crunchwraps—with their ecstatically brittle, crunchy interiors insulated within a durable, squishy blanket of flour tortilla—to be a remarkably apt metaphor for the queer experience.
Taco Bell is a massive multinational corporation founded by a straight white man, like most massive multinational corporations. The eponymously-inclined Glen Bell stole his recipes from Mitla Cafe, a beloved family-owned spot that’s still going strong - if comparatively unsung - in San Bernardino. It’s an inveterate tool of our bloated industrial food system (a system we need and should marvel at even as it slowly destroys us—pastoralism is bullshit). It provides heavily-lobbied tacos that cost less than $1.50 to everyone from kids taking legally-sanctioned methamphetamines to drunk college students to the disturbingly large number of middle and working-class Americans who often can’t afford to eat much else.
Taco Bell provided a much-needed escape to a kid who was called The Cootie Queen for a solid year in 2nd grade, whose supposed best friend transferred to her school and promptly proceeded to terrorize her in 5th and 6th, who applied to 13 different colleges because she was so desperate and determined to find a place where she could make more than just a couple of equally unpopular friends.
While I’m writing this, I’m eating a burrito. It’s a fancier, New Brooklyn burrito - but fuck if it doesn’t fill that same hole in my soul.
Food is incredibly powerful. It creates and destroys. It is creation and destruction. It’s connection and division. It gets inside us both literally and figuratively, and it sustains us with that same ephemeral duality. I have a master’s degree in studying food; I research food history for fun, and the more I learn about it, the more complicated it gets.
Taco Bell might be the purest distillation of all that ephemera. The siren song of that neon bell is deeply comforting but a simultaneous harbinger of systemic doom.