Friday, February 4, 2011

Make a Run For the Border

There was a time in my life when I absolutely positively adored Taco Bell.

In high school, Taco Bell was where I went when I felt like I'd done something particularly noteworthy and needed  to reward myself. The day I tried out for and made my school's select Chamber Choir for the first time, I asked my mom to take me to dinner at Taco Bell to celebrate. Sad, but true. It was almost always in my price range; I could usually find a total of $3 in my house if I checked pants pockets, under the couch cushions, and in my dad's loose change cup. Three dollars could get you quite a bit of food back at the Bell in the late 80s and early 90s. I could usually get 2 soft tacos, a Chilito, and a small Dr. Pepper for all that loose change. If I was feeling really crazy, or found an extra quarter somewhere, I could swap out one of the soft tacos for a MexiMelt. Jason and I started many a date there. On those occasions, when he was buying, I splurged and got a Burrito Supreme. Romantic, no. Cheap and tasty, usually.

When a good friend of mine started working at the Bell in our mall, and could buy food for me with her discount...oh, don't even get me started. Not only could I get the discount, but she could make my food for me and put extra cheese on everything. Joy! The fact that around that time is when I stopped being super-thin and started having to exercise to be able to look cute in my jeans is perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

This friend used to tell me more than I really wanted to know about how the food was made and how it came to them frozen and pre-packaged and totally and completely processed beyond recognition. We still ate most of their menu items, though, and when we both went away to college at Centre we craved it enough to occasionally make Taco Bell runs all the way to Lexington. That we used to drive all the way to Lexington for Taco Bell still gets me; our classmates were making beer runs, we were driving ridiculous distances for $.49 tacos.

And now it's come out that the "beef" in the tacos we were eating all those years wasn't really beef at all. At least, over 60% of it wasn't. Here's my shocked face:                 (See, not really shocked at all.)

I can't decide whether or not to be disturbed by this. The fillers that occupy the space where the beef technically should be don't particularly gross me out. Oats are okay, soy is okay. To be completely honest, I thought that the day I learned Taco Bell had been misadvertising its "beef" would be the day we all learn it's made of chihuahua or something. Oh, don't make that face. How else did you think they were making profit from $.99 chalupas?

I know that when I make tacos at home the final "taco meat filling" isn't 100% beef, either. By the time the fat cooks out and I add some water and spices back in, who knows what the percentage really is?

But I still have to shudder when I read that Taco Bell's product is only 36% beef and doesn't even technically meet the requirements to be "taco meat filling."

I think I feel disappointment more than anything, even though I haven't been a regular Taco Bell customer in over a decade. I remember when I was a kid that you used to see Taco Bell workers actually frying up ground beef behind the counter and chopping real lettuce and grating real cheese. When me moved here from Knox County, Mom preferred Taco Bell to any other fast food restaurant when we found ourselves needing a quick meal that she didn't cook. We could see how the food was made and it seemed less shady than the local McDonald's which was worked exclusively by stoned teenagers. I loved that I could afford Taco Bell in high school; but what did we sacrifice by demanding cheap quantity over good quality?

Real beef, apparently.

That Taco Bell's food doesn't even taste the same now as it did in the already-processed-beyond-belief 90s, and that it didn't taste the same in the 90s as it did when I was a kid, speaks a lot about how our standards for food have fallen. I have no delusions that fast food was ever a healthier option than a home-cooked meal. But even fast food used to have standards and tried to be actual, you know, food. Not a formless prepackaged substance that stretches the limits of the government definition of "meat."

My family is more of a Chipotle family when it comes to fast Mexican-ish food, so it's probably not going to hurt Taco Bell too much when I say that I will never choose to eat there again.

And yet I really hope that this thrust into the headlines and controversy over how much beef it takes to actually be beef makes them question their own food and their bottom line. It's probably unrealistic, but I would love to see Taco Bell (and other fast food establishments, for that matter) get their act together and serve us real food again by the time my daughter is a teenager who goes through pants pockets and couch cushions in order to treat herself to a couple of soft tacos and a Chilito. Of course, doing so will mean that she will have to scrounge up a lot more change than I did.

In the end, though, knowing what exactly we're eating should trump $3 value meals.

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