Taco Bell: A Retrospective

by Tom Lee

Obviously, it’s a week late for decade-ending retrospectives. Still, my tardiness shouldn’t stand in the way of the celebration of greatness.

Much could be written about the last decade in food: the ascendancy of the Whole Foods Nation; the emergence of a twee Brooklyn craft sensibility in everything from beer brewing to butcher shops; the merging of the culinary, ecological and political spheres into a unified movement. But this post is about art, not history. And, though the ultimate success of its aesthetic program is debatable, there can be no question that, as the twenty-first century dawned, no one corporation staged as many daring conceptual interventions as Taco Bell.

Of course, the work came with its own history: a foundation of late-90s blandishments that assured users they could “run for the border” even during “late night” — you stoners, drunks and other marginal criminalia would be tolerated, if not welcomed, by us, the purveyors of profoundly marginal food. No one would be happy about this, exactly. But we could live together here, unmolested, while the respectable world slumbers.

But this sleepy culinary squatter’s camp wasn’t enough for Taco Bell — or perhaps it was just inevitable that the firm would succumb to the culture it had courted. First it came as simple cynicism: advertising its awful food’s sheer, awful weight; frying whatever was already on hand because hey, why not?

But then psychedelia took hold. Red taco shells. Black taco shells. A kaleidoscopic combinatorial explosion of ingredient pairings which, sure, wasn’t a tactic unique to TB — KFC’s Famous Bowls and McDonald’s Snack Wraps must surely win the prize for the decade’s most impressively audacious supply-chain-mismanagement-cum-edible-product debuts — but no competitor’s programme had the restive ceaselessness, the furious insistence, the stale-amphetamine-sweat drive of Taco Bell’s. It was clear that they were poised for a breakthrough.

And they delivered; not once, but twice. First, the masterpiece: FourthMeal. What can be said, really? With this single conceptual proposal, Taco Bell revealed itself to be a child of de Sade as much as it was a child of Kroc. Man is an animal, they said, and we shall inflict upon it all that for which it secretly longs. To do so, we need only unmake society and its arbitrary strictures! But that was just a small thing — it’s a wonder no one had thought to do so before.

So, yes, FourthMeal. A supersaturated crystallization of the chain’s own history, and its heedlessness of everyone else’s.

To be honest, I am not as much of a fan of their more recent work, The Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet — it’s undeniably skillful in its execution, but I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for epic grandiosity. Still, how do you follow FourthMeal? Diet‘s brazen senselessness provides at least part of an answer: they said the center couldn’t hold, you heard them, we warned you about the center; and now look where we are. Once you blast the world into postmodern nothingness, it’s tough to climb out of the crater. But that cultural dynamite plunger is irresistible, and anyway these days half your audience can’t be sure they’re not chattering away in an asylum somewhere, so fuck it, right? Let’s sell some tacos, resolve to get good and drunk at biennale, and if our spoiled children’s dormmates blankly suggest some late-night chalupas — wholly innocent of the metaphorical foundations that make such a meal even possible — well, we’ll be laughing all the way to the next fawning piece in the New Yorker.


3 responses to “Taco Bell: A Retrospective

  1. The famous bowl has nothing on the Double Down.

    Of course, omitting a bun probably makes anything from McD/King/KFC healthier knowing what goes into them.

    I had a volcano taco recently… first trip to Taco Bell in a few years. It was actually* somewhat spicy! Must’ve been a mistake.

    * possibly a psychosomatic response to the red shell

  2. I was wondering why some nights I just wake up craving for burritos from Taco Bell. And now I don’t know which came first, my late night burrito cravings or Taco Bell being open til late midnight.

  3. This diet actually frightens me– more appropriately, the amount of people who will fall for this tactic is what frightens me. Trialbyfireblog.com– there’s a full rant on my blog.

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