Slate's Mark Dery, author of "The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink", considers the pros and cons of the
ptomaine hotbed venerable fast food chain Taco Bell while coming to terms with "the whiter, more monocultural society we were, versus the hyphenated nation we've become."
Taco Bell made Mexican food safe for postwar white America by turning down the tongue-searing heat, translating alien ingredients into the gabacho idiom, and automating food prep: The queso fresco sprinkled onto Mexican tostadas became cheddar cheese; the fragrant, meltingly delicious tortillas made by hand in Tijuana taco stands became prefab taco shells, uniform as widgets.
Most important, Glen Bell recontextualized the experience of eating Mexican food. In the gothic fantasies of white America, taquerias indifferent to the existence of dirt and grease served meat of uncertain origin and colon-scarring spiciness, calculated to exact Montezuma's revenge from whimpering, backfiring whites. Bell moved Mexican food to the right side of the tracks: Brightly lit and spotless as operating rooms, early Taco Bells were staffed and patronized exclusively by Anglos, at least in my experience. (Times have changed, apparently: SoCal-based Mexican-Americans interviewed for this story claimed that the sight of Latinos working and eating at Taco Bell is not at all uncommon.)
"At the time, Mexican restaurants were considered dirty," said the culinary historian Andrew F. Smith, in an e-mail interview. Raised in L.A. in the '60s, he recalled that "in racist Southern California, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, then popularly known as greasers, were also considered dirty. Few suburban Anglo kids ate Mexican food until Taco Bell arrived. It sanitized 'Mexican' food (and in many ways, it also cleaned up the image of Mexican-Americans)."
But what's Taco Bell's reason for living in an America where public schools are adding mariachi to the music curriculum and huitlacoche is the new porcini? In the United States of 2007, Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority — at 44.3 million, they make up 15 percent of the population — and 64 percent of them are of Mexican origin. Who needs partial-birth cuisine like the Meximelt or the Crunchwrap Supreme when the real thing, in more and more American cities, is just a barrio away?